While the battleground for the overall victory in the 2010 Tour de France seems to be the exclusive territory of Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, the battle for the remaining podium spot is wide open and cards appear stacked in Rabobank's favour.
No less than 15 riders are ranked within five minutes of each other in the general classification and the Dutch squad is the only team able to put two men in the top 10. Experienced Russian rider Denis Menchov is currently sitting in fourth place while young Dutchman Robert Gesink sits three spots further down in the overall standings.
Going into the Tour de France media were uncertain whether it was possible to have two outspoken team leaders and after two weeks of racing nobody's complaining about the squad's chosen tactic. As the peloton prepares for the action in the Pyrenees, Cyclingnews checked out the spirits in de oranje camp and spoke with team director Erik Breukink and the two team leaders Gesink and Menchov.
"We're communicating more than before. After going well in the first Alpine mountain stage that became easier for me because I was more confident," said Gesink. Menchov too, feels they're getting along better than ever.
Realistically Menchov has a better chance to get on the podium in Paris, taking in account that the Russian is very experienced, seldom has an off day, performs well in time trials and often gets better during a Grand Tour.
Gesink isn't sure of his full potential as yet, hasn't proven the most confident rider on descents and time trials and is still struggling with the wrist injury that plagued him after crashes during the first week of this year's Tour.
Breukink, podium finisher in the 1990 Tour de France when Greg Lemond won his third final title, provided Cyclingnews with a glimpse into Rabobank's team strategy for the last week: "We started with the goal to protect our two leaders and get them as close to the front as possible. Now with the Pyrenees ahead of us things are looking good," said the Dutchman.
"The toughest week is still to come, so there's still a lot that can happen. Liquigas also has two guys in the top 10 and the gaps aren't big so all can change just like that," he explained. "The third place is our goal now. Menchov is in a better position for that."
Breukink hinted that the Russian would ride more defensively, whereas Gesink would be their 'joker'. "The two in front have made a big gap and possibly Gesink can take profit from that to try something, because Schleck and Contador shouldn't react to him when he attacks," Breukink continued.
"You've got to be realistic about the overall victory though, but you never know of course. We'll just try to finish as high up in GC as possible, and that starts with maintaining your own high position before you start thinking about other things."
Gesink told Cyclingnews recently he only suffers from pain in one wrist, surely bothering him more than desired. After the stage to the aerodrome in Mende the Dutchman was happy with his current form. "I wasn't with the first guys but I'm happy. There are a lot of dead men walking in the peloton," he said.
For tomorrow's stage to Ax-3-Domaines he expects war: "I expect that the battle will be on right away. Contador needs to make up some time on Schleck. He's going to try something. I'm feeling good but I don't know what is possible. It'll be tough, that's for sure."
Whereas some riders like Menchov tend to get better during a Grand Tour the same can't be said for his young Dutch teammate.. "My form is contanst enough to be there in the final week of the Tour de France, but it's not that I'm getting better everyday," he explained.
And Menchov certainly has the best credentials for a podium place. During the rest day he was still hoping that a Tour victory was possible but that has changed after stage nine up the Col de la Madeleine. Third place is a realisic goal for the Russian, which would be a match of his result in 2008 when Carlos Sastre won the Tour.
Despite being one of the few riders who has finished on the podium in all three Grand Tours, claiming the overall win in the Giro d'Italia and twice in the Vuelta a España in addition to his Tour de France third place, the Russian tends to be riding through this year's Tour out of the limelight.
"I like it like that," he said. "I'm not interested in being surrounded by the media all the time." Regarding his chances Menchov knew only one thing mattered: "I know I'm going well but it's the legs that decide a good result. I always said that it's all about how good you are in the last week of this Tour."
Rabobank's tactics to capture that last podium spot will surely be a highlight during the impending excitement of the coming stages in between the fireworks that are likely between protagonists Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.
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