Battle for Tour de France podium heats up

There’s an intense battle brewing for the final spot on the Tour de France podium.

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While all eyes are on the duel between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, there’s an intense battle brewing for the final spot on the Tour de France podium.

Just like the tight battle for the yellow jersey, where just eight seconds separate the two leaders, things are looking equally as tight for the final spot on the podium.

Samuel Sánchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi) sits in third at two minutes back, but he knows that the battle for the podium will be just as intense in the final push toward Paris.

“Things are pretty complicated. I am too close on GC that they will let me go to try to win a stage, and then I have (Denis) Menchov breathing down my neck for the podium,” Sánchez told VeloNews. “I am stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

Sánchez’s hopes of finishing on the Tour podium are further stymied by his performance Tuesday, when he was dropped when the hot attacks came on the Peyresourd early in the stage. He regained contact, but he didn’t look as fresh as Menchov.

The quiet Russian is lurking dangerously close to the podium, fourth at 2:13 back, enough to make Contador and Schleck nervous. First he has to get around Sánchez, and the Olympic champion admits it’s looking complicated for him to hold his spot.

“The truth is things are looking bleak for the podium,” Sánchez said after Tuesday’s stage. “Denis is a better time trialist than me, even though I beat him in the Vuelta. This Tour has been very difficult and we spent a lot of energy (Tuesday). Thursday will see big differences opening up.”

The Rabobank camp is optimistic it can reach the podium with Menchov for the team’s first Tour podium since the damaging Michael Rasmussen scandal of 2007

Rabobank kicked the Danish climbing specialist out of the Tour following irregularities in Rasmussen’s pre-Tour doping controls just four days from likely victory in Paris. It was Rasmussen’s controversial exclusion that opened the door for Contador’s first Tour win.

Now Rabobank are back with the best Menchov anyone has ever seen.

Menchov is the biggest dark-horse the Tour has seen in years. Some even suggest that he could catch Contador and Schleck by surprise and run away with the yellow jersey.

“We are confident in Denis. He is even stronger in the Pyrénées,” said Rabobank sport director Erik Breukink. “Denis is a better time trialist than Sánchez. I really don’t think he will lose too much time to Contador and Schleck in the mountains. He is capable of timing time.”

Menchov knows what it takes to win a grand tour. His first Vuelta win in 2005 was awarded to him when winner Roberto Heras later tested positive for EPO. He came back in 2007 and won for real, fending off a challenge from Alejandro Valverde, who won in 2009 when Menchov didn’t start.

His victory in last year’s Giro d’Italia was even more impressive, fending off now-disgraced runner-up Danilo Di Luca and surviving a spill in the final-day time trial.

Menchov is hoping to repeat feat, but adds that there’s a big hurdle to overcome ahead of the race against the clock.

“I feel as good now as in the grand tours I won,” Menchov said. “We’ll see if I can stay close to Schleck and Contador up the Tourmalet. I think I could even take second if I have a great time trial. It depends a lot on how the wind is during the race.”

Behind Sánchez and Menchov, there are other aspirants for the spotlight in Paris.

Jurgen Van den Broeck (Silence-Lotto) is having the best Belgian GC performance in a generation.

“It’s a two-man race for the yellow jersey, but the podium is still up for grabs,” said Omega Pharma-Lotto sport director Roberto Damiani. “Just like Schleck needs more time on Contador, Sánchez needs time on Menchov. And Jurgen is still right there. Nothing will be decided until Bordeaux.”

Van den Broeck has been one of the revelations of this year’s Tour. Fifteenth in his Tour debut last year, the team is hoping the former junior world time trial champion in the top-10, but they know more is possible if Van den Broeck holds tough.

“Last year 15th, this year, top-10. If he gets more, it’s a bonus,” Damiani said. “He is making solid progress. He is very hard to drop in the climbs and he also likes to attack when he has good legs. He’s very serious, very hard-working. He doesn’t make a big splash, but next year, why not shoot for the podium?”

Further back is Robert Gesink (Rabobank), sixth at 5:01 back. The Dutch climber will make a shove for the stage victory Thursday up the Tourmalet, but his weak time trialing skills will likely see him slip on GC by Paris.

Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), seventh at 5:25, and Joaquín Rodríguez (Katusha), eighth at 5:45, are both likely beyond podium range unless they can pull off something spectacular up the Tourmalet.

Whatever the outcome, this year’s podium is one of the most hotly contested in years.

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