On the eve of the second summit finish of the Tour de France, Saxo Bank Sungard manager Bjarne Riis has said that Alberto Contador does not necessarily need to take back time immediately if he is to win the race.
Contador conceded 15 seconds to the group of overall contenders on the final haul to Luz-Ardiden on stage 12, and now lies over two minutes behind Leopard Trek's Fränk Schleck, with Andy Schleck (Leopard Trek) and Cadel Evans (BMC) also ahead of the Spaniard.
Speaking to reporters in Pau on Friday morning, however, Riis insisted that he was focused on his own rider rather than worrying about his rivals ahead of the tough stage to Plateau de Beille.
"I think that the most important thing is where Alberto is. We'll see tomorrow," Riis said, adding that the Spaniard could repeat Thursday's sub-par display and remain very much in contention: "He might maybe lose 10 or 15 seconds again tomorrow but still be in the game."
Since the opening weekend of the race, pundits have repeatedly pointed out that Contador still had several key mountain stages in which to recoup his losses, but Riis acknowledged that sooner or later his rider cannot wait indefinitely to go on the offensive.
"We cannot say that every day," Riis said. "If Alberto had a bad day yesterday, when the good day comes then I believe the whole Tour will change again. But he needs a good day."
While the precise state of the knee injury Contador sustained in the opening week of the Tour remains unclear, Riis was reluctant to speculate on whether the Spaniard would pay a price for the energy he expended at the Giro d'Italia in the final week of the race.
"Maybe, maybe not," Riis said enigmatically. "I don't really think that I should have a better answer than you guys. Whatever I would say to that question would be speculation."
As a veteran of more Grand Tours than the assembled gaggle of reporters, it was put to Riis that he was far better placed to hazard a guess on Contador's fatigue levels. "Yeah, but you're the experts," Riis dead-panned, before breaking into a rare smile.
The Dane was typically laconic in his assessment of the performance of the Schleck brothers on the road to Luz-Ardiden, describing Fränk Schleck's display as "good."
Better than his brother? "I think so, yeah."
Riis also refused to speculate publicly on whether one of the Schlecks would be prepared to sacrifice the other's ambitions in order to win yellow.
"They will wait for each other," he joked, before clarifying. "I don't know what their tactics are."
Surely as their former manager, he must have an idea of their thinking?
"Yeah, but I keep it on my team bus," he grinned.
The smiling stopped when Riis was asked if he felt that the small time gaps and delayed attacks on the final climb to Luz-Ardiden were indicative of a cleaner peloton.
"I don't know, I have no answer to that," he said quietly. "I hope the peloton is clean."
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