Rabobank ready for Tour de France challenges

The Rabobank team is gearing up for tomorrow's start of the Tour de France on home turf. It has an important meeting to observe on Friday afternoon, which may give the Dutch team further motivation for the three-week race: the soccer World Cup quarterfinal game against Brazil. While the match will serve as welcome distraction in a country as crazy about football as about bikes, it will not distract the Rabobank riders from their primary goal at this year's Tour, i.e. the overall victory for Denis Menchov.

The Russian can be added to the list of the overall favourites, and he has built up his season for that sole goal. He declined to defend his Grand Tour title at the Giro d'Italia earlier this season, choosing instead to arrive at the Tour de France start fresh, without too many racing kilometres in his legs.

"My form is very good," the Russian said at the team's press conference on Friday morning at the Ahoy Arena in Rotterdam. "I feel good. I did a good job at the Dauphiné in June and had an excellent preparation camp in the Sierra Nevada afterward. So I think I will be at the start line in perfect shape."

This is a different build-up for Menchov than in the last two years, when he did the Giro, winning it in 2009. The three-time Grand Tour winner is back to a less exhausting pre-Tour programme in the hope that this will make the difference for an overall success. "I hope that this preparation will be sufficient. I don't think I missed [the rhythm of racing], my preparation at the Dauphiné and my training afterward were good."

Menchov, the experienced leader who may only have another two or three years to achieve a Tour victory, gets support from an upcoming star, Robert Gesink. It is the second Tour for the Dutchman, who hopes to finish it in Paris this time after crashing out early last year. Gesink, recently victorious of a stage in the Tour de Suisse, is rated as the next great Dutch stage racer and will be protected to learn the trade of Grand Tour racing whilst also trying to go for GC honours.

"I'm only 24 years old. I'm still here to learn and to become stronger," said Gesink, who feels that he is up for the challenge for a top spot on general classification and the white jersey of best young rider. "Nevertheless, I will try to do well on the overall. My goal is the white jersey."

Asked how he rated his chances against the likes of Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), he said, "Nobody is unbeatable. When I won the Tour de Suisse stage to La Punt, I was a bit surprised that Andy got dropped. Of course, the Tour de Suisse is not the Tour de France, but I still think that it is possible."

The third card in the hands of Rabobank is multiple World Champion Oscar Freire, arguably one of the smartest sprinters around, and who will be extra-motivated as he revealed that this could be his very last Tour de France before retirement at the end of 2011.

"My condition is good, better than at the Tour de Suisse," the Spaniard said, hoping to score on the flatter stages resulting in fast bunch finishes. Knowing the configuration of his team, focused on the support of Menchov and Gesink, Freire will be largely by himself in the stage finales.

"My situation is different compared to that of Farrar, for example. I don't have a lead-out train to take me to the finish; I have to work hard to get a good position for the final 200 metres, whereas the protected sprinters don't have this sort of difficulty. But I know I can rely on myself, like last year in Barcelona, where, even if I did not win, I had a great result."

Regarding Mark Cavendish (HTC-Columbia), Freire noted that the rival sprinter would again be very competitive at the Tour, regardless of the difficulties he's had until now. "He is better now than he was at the beginning of the season," he said. "Of course, it will be difficult for him to do even better than last year [where he won six stages - ed.]. Still, there are a lot of flat stages this year and I still hope to get some chance."

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