Inside the Tour with John Wilcockson: Evans in command as Tour heads toward the mountains

The Schlecks and Contador ready to test the “rest day favorite” in the Pyrénées

Photo: AFP

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The Schlecks and Contador ready to test the “rest day favorite” in the Pyrénées

Evans charges
Evans has already won a stage at this Tour, and he's the best positioned of the GC favorites at the first rest day. Photo: Graham Watson |

VIC-SUR-CÈRE, France (VN) — With nine stages, some 1,591km (almost 1,000 miles) of racing and dozens of crashes behind them, the 180 survivors in this 98th Tour de France spent Monday’s rest day in the truest sense of the term: relaxing and healing in the Auvergne, one of the most remote corners of France. The 22 teams were accommodated in 21 hotels in 14 different towns across this hilly region of dark volcanic peaks and bright pastoral valleys.

Because they were scattered up to two hours apart on narrow, twisting back roads, the teams weren’t assaulted by the usual media mob. Typical was the press conference held beneath the sunshade of BMC Racing’s equipment truck at a modest hotel in bucolic Vic-sur-Cère. Virtual race leader Cadel Evans — who was called the man of the week — answered respectful questions from a small group of reporters for half an hour before he posed for photos with his Italian wife Chiara and their little brown dog, seven-year-old Molly.

That familial tableau belied the intensity with which Evans and his much-stronger-than-predicted teammates have ridden this race. They make up only one of the 10 teams that still have a full complement of nine riders. Good luck has certainly played a part in saving BMC from the ravages of the opening week, but as Evans pointed out , “I’ve had plenty of close calls … but George Hincapie, Manuel Quinziato and Michael Schär keep me in a good position.”

The same can be said for Andy and Fränk Schleck, whose solid, classics-hardened Leopard-Trek teammates Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady and Joost Posthuma have protected their two leaders for virtually every kilometer of every stage. It’s not surprising that their team in intact too.

Virtual GC on the first rest day

1. Cadel Evans
2. Fränk Schleck at 0:03
3. Andy Schleck at 0:11
4. Tony Martin at 0:12
5. Peter Velits s.t.
6. Andreas Klöden at 0:17T
7. Ivan Basso at 1:10
8. Damiano Cunego at 1:11
9. Nicolas Roche at 1:19
10. Robert Gesink at 1:35
11. Alberto Contador at 1:41
12. Tom Danielson at 1:56
13. Rein Taaramae at 2:26
14. Christian Vande Velde at 2:27
15. Samuel Sanchez at 2:35
16. Jean-Christophe Peraud at 3:06
17. Jérôme Coppel at 4:09
18. Levi Leipheimer at 4:50
19. Rigoberto Uran at 4:54
20. Ryder Hesjedal at 7:07

Surprisingly, the other top favorites, Saxo Bank-SunGard’s Alberto Contador, Liquigas-Cannondale Ivan Basso and HTC-Highroad’s Tony Martin and Peter Velits, also have complete formations. But to date, Contador’s men have not been outstanding; too often, after his many mishaps, Contador has been left alone far too long when he has had to chase back to the peloton.

Combined with the bangs and bruises he has suffered to his knee and backside, that extra stress could affect Contador’s performances in the climbing stages that begin Thursday. The Spaniard has expressed his doubts about making up the 1:41 by which he trails Evans on overall time, saying Monday that Evans is now the Tour’s top favorite.

But Evans is not so sure. “It’s just talk,” he said about being called the favorite. “We’ll keep on doing what we’ve been doing and see what happens.”

He then added this about Contador: “I expect Alberto to test us again at Luz-Ardiden (on Thursday) as he did last week at Mûr-de-Bretagne and Super-Besse.” But it has been significant that when the two-time defending champion has made surges on this Tour’s steepest hills, either the Schlecks or Evans, or all three of them, have quickly matched him.

And because they all have that significant time advantages on Contador (gained after he was caught in a stage 1 crash and lost a further 20-odd seconds in the team time trial), Evans and the Schlecks can just cling to Contador’s wheel to defend their prime positions should he attack in the mountains. That’s a much easier proposition than being obliged to make up lost time.

Evans has consistently finished ahead of his rivals on the four hilltop finishes and yet he remains (seemingly) as fresh as he was coming into the Tour 10 days ago. The same might be said of the other three men who’ve raced below the radar so far: Basso, Martin and Velits.

Basso had some missteps on the first few stages but has gotten stronger as the race has progressed; and Martin and Velits have been prominent in contributing powerful pulls for the HTC lead-out train that has helped Mark Cavendish snag two sprint stage wins. But their climbing form will continue to be questioned until they show significant strength in the two mountaintop stage finishes this coming Thursday and Saturday.

Team RadioShack’s one remaining podium hope, Andreas Klöden, had a perfect race until he fell and injured his back in Sunday’s nasty pileup on the Puy Mary’s slick, snaking descent; but with no Jani Brajkovic or Chris Horner to help him, and with Levi Leipheimer still hurting from three consecutive days of crashes, the veteran German’s hopes are looking to be top-five at best.

Looking further ahead, to the final week’s grueling trio of alpine stages and the difficult time trial at Grenoble, the Schlecks will need to start gaining time on Evans. If they start trying to do this in the Pyrénées this week they could find an ally in Contador, which could put Evans in a corner.

But just as the experts underestimated BMC in last week’s team time trial (the team finished a brilliant runner-up to Garmin-Cervélo) and misjudged the strength of its classics men, so it’s likely that Evans’ trio of climbers will also surprise. “They’re very eager to go,” Evans said Monday. “Ivan Santoromita is waiting in the wings, I have to tell him, ‘Calm down, calm down.’ Steve Morabito is starting to come around and helped close the gap in the (Thomas) Voeckler break yesterday (Sunday). And Amaël Moinard is getting better every day — he was good on the stage to Super-Besse.”

That was the Australian’s calm analysis on a rest day that saw him in prime position for the difficult days ahead.

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