Stage 14's stage from Revel to Ax 3 Domaines marks the start of the final battle that will decide the winner of the 2010 Tour de France and the two riders who will flank him on the final podium in Paris. Speaking before the start of stage 13 both Astana leader Alberto Contador and Euskaltel team manager Igor González de Galdeano refused to be drawn on their tactical approach to these key stages, but did admit that the first of them is likely to see big time gaps opening up between the overall contenders.
Contador confessed he was happy with his position 31 seconds down on race leader Andy Schleck, particularly after striking what he described as "a pretty good psychological blow" by cutting 10 seconds from the Luxembourger's lead on stage 12's finish at Mende. Looking ahead to four hard days in the Pyrenees, he admitted his biggest fear was "having a bad day" and said he would take the Pyrenees cautiously – at least to start with.
"In the Pyrenees, because of the difficulty of the climbs, the key thing will be not to fail rather than thinking about gaining time," said the Spaniard.
As a much stronger time triallist than Schleck, Contador knows that he is likely to win the Tour even if his deficit on the Saxo Bank rider is still 31 seconds when they exit the Pyrenees. "My position is good. If I don't see myself gaining a significant advantage I won't attack, because I don't need to take risks. Of course you always prefer to be ahead and if I think I can manage that I'll go for it, but I have the advantage of the time trial if I need to recover some time."
After looking well below his best on the opening stage in the Alps, Contador believes his best form is coming. "I hope to have good sensations because every day I'm feeling better. I hope to take advantage of what are very tough stages and if possible gain some time and get ahead of Andy Schleck," he explained.
Analysing the Pyrenean stages, Contador said: "The first pass, the Pailhères, is very hard, with steep gradients and a fast descent before the climb to Ax 3 Domaines, which is short but tough. There are going to be some big time gaps. The key point on the next stage is the climb of the Balès, which is a long and very hard pass with a very bad descent into the finish. It is similar to the Madeleine stage [in the Alps].
"The stage to Pau will be a difficult day because it begins with the climb of the Peyresourde, and then there's the Tourmalet and the Aubisque, from where there are 60 kilometers to the finish. That will be a day for seeing how other riders perform because the run-in to the finish will be difficult.
"Finally there is the finish on the Tourmalet, which is the stage everyone is talking about, with the Marie Blanque and Soulor before it. That day we will have to look at the overall classification before deciding what to do. But the most important thing is not having a bad day in the Pyrenees, otherwise we risk losing all of our options."
Sánchez still in the hunt
Although Contador and Schleck are the two outstanding favorites for the yellow jersey, Euskaltel boss Galdeano believes his team leader Samuel Sánchez can still have an impact on the race and finish on the podium in Paris. "I think we're achieving the objectives we laid out before the Tour as we've got Samuel in third place at the moment and we'll be looking for the stage win that we've already gone close to.
"The goal now will be to ensure that Samuel has support for as long as possible in the mountains. We won't be trying to get riders into breaks as we did earlier in the race. The focus will be very much on supporting Samuel in any way we can and defending his third place."
Galdeano recognized that holding on to that third place is not going to be easy for his team leader. "He's got Denis Menchov right on his heels, and he's won two Vueltas and the Giro. [Levi] Leipheimer, who has finished on the podium at the Tour and other races, is also up there. But we've got confidence in Samuel and if he produces his best we'll be optimistic about his chances."
Galdeano believes that if the head-to-head battle that took place between Contador and Schleck in the Alps continues in the Pyrenees it will suit Sánchez. "That will benefit him because it will make the race hard and that will work in Samuel's favour because of the form he's got at the moment. If he can stay close to them as he did before he should be able to gain more time," said Galdeano.
Of the four Pyrenean stages, Galdeano picked the first as the most crucial "because there are going to be some big gaps and the stage will put everyone in their correct place". He added: "We're in a good position with Samuel placed where he is right now. We just have to keep our feet on the ground and see what happens. We won't be obsessing with thoughts about the podium, but we won't be putting them out of our minds either."
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Peter Cossins has written about professional cycling since 1993 and is a contributing editor to Procycling. He is the author of The Monuments: The Grit and the Glory of Cycling's Greatest One-Day Races (Bloomsbury, March 2014) and has translated Christophe Bassons' autobiography, A Clean Break (Bloomsbury, July 2014).