Olympic road champion Samuel Sanchez is perhaps be the one general classification contender with the least pressure on his shoulders as the Tour de France enters its third week. Currently placed sixth, 3:44 behind overall leader Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), the Euskaltel-Euskadi rider has already realised his biggest objective at this Tour - a stage victory - and therefore sees everything that is to come as a mere bonus.
Speaking before the press at the team's hotel in Orange, Sanchez said that the squad's hopes at the race had already been fulfilled when he won stage 12 to Luz-Ardiden.
"From all the Tours I've done so far, this one is the most relaxed. With the stage win, good performances in the mountains and a good placing on GC, we have done a great Tour de France so far, and you notice that in the team's atmosphere. Moreover, we've already done a good Giro, so the way we have been able to shine so far this season is very important, it's a relief," said Sanchez, who finished fourth in last year's Tour.
But because Euskaltel-Euskadi conceded 1:22 at the team time trial, finishing last of all teams, Sanchez said he might give the polka dot jersey a try instead of bidding for a finish on the podium. The Spaniard sits in second position on the mountains classification, two points behind Jelle Vandenert of Omega Pharma-Lotto.
"I won't try to get into a breakaway, because they won't let me go. I won't have the same freedom as I did in the Pyrenees," he said. "But in the summit finishes I will try to be in front of the Belgian if I can, to score more points. The way the mountains classification has been changed, it benefits the riders who are in front at the summit finishes. It's definitely an objective that is within reach and that is motivating."
Admitting that a podium finish in Paris will be "complicated", Sanchez offered his assessment of the contenders for the final victory and cited current yellow jersey wearer Thomas Voeckler as his biggest favourite.
"Voeckler, to me, is a real candidate for the final victory at this point. He says that he isn't, but after what I saw at Plateau de Beille, I firmly believe this.
"Then there's Evans. On paper, he's the best time triallist. These two stand the best chances at this point to win. The Schlecks will have to continue to attack as they did in the Pyrenees if they want to make up time on them," he added.
As to his close friend Alberto Contador, seventh on GC at four minutes, Sanchez assured that "if there is someone who has this ability to recover and come back, it's Alberto." Contador is widely seen as improving his form from day to day after setbacks in the first part of the race, and remains a threat to anyone eyeing the final podium on the Champs-Elysées.
"It's logical that they fear him," said Sanchez, who also thought that Contador will be launching an attack if he feels rehabilitated. "He's won three Tours, two Giros and a Vuelta - nobody has done that in recent years except him. He's the monster of our era. I think the Schlecks did everything they could: they put their team to work when they had to, attacked him when they could. But one of these days in the Alps, he will come back."
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