Wiggins ready for all takers on Mende

Van Garderen, Leipheimer, Valverde poised for GC battle

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RODEZ, France (VN) — Bradley Wiggins is sitting confidently in the pole position going into Thursday’s mountaintop finish at Mende as the GC battle at Paris-Nice heats up. The Team Sky captain said Wednesday that he fears Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) more than anyone on the 3km finish climb.

Wiggins finished safely in the pack in Wednesday’s uphill sprint into Rodez to defend his narrow, six-second lead over Levi Leipheimer (Omega Pharma-Quick Step).

Thirteen riders will start within one minute of Wiggins on Thursday, but the Brit says the rival he most fears is Valverde, lurking seventh overall at 20 seconds back.

“The stage is perfect for Valverde,” Wiggins said. “I will do what I can to stay with him. With the time bonuses up for grabs, it could make things complicated.”

A 10-second bonus is waiting at the line for the stage winner (six and four seconds for second and third places, respectively), but Wiggins is also confident he can keep things under control.

“We’ll get to the bottom of Mende and just empty the tank. It’s a 2km climb, about six minutes, it’s pretty simple, really. It’s not a 10-15km climb, where a lot of things can happen,” Wiggins said. “I will empty the tank and we’ll see where that puts me.”

Working in Wiggins’ favor, at least against Valverde, is Sunday’s climbing time trial up Col d’Eze. Even though Valverde might be at more of an advantage than if it were on the flats, Wiggins knows that even if he loses time to Valverde tomorrow, he can take some back on Sunday.

“If I can get to Col d’Eze even on Valverde, I would be happy with that,” Wiggins said. “It’s Levi that I am more worried about [in the final state]. Tejay, a little bit, but Levi looks strong.”

Team Sky is confident that Wiggins can deliver the victory. Sky sport director Sean Yates said Wiggins is more confident than ever.

“Valverde didn’t take any time bonuses today, so that’s good for us,” Yates told VeloNews after the stage. “Bradley is just flying now. He’s in the best shape of his career and he’s more confident than ever. Tomorrow is a big test. If we’re even on Valverde going into Col d’Eze, we know Brad can do it because he took 30 seconds on him Sunday.”

The six-climb, 178.5km stage from Onet-le-Chateau to Mende should see an early breakaway of stage-hunters pull clear. With two first-category and two second-category climbs packed into the second half of the stage, a winning breakaway that gobbles up finish-line bonuses would be ideal for Wiggins.

The Challengers
Van Garderen, who so far has avoided a stomach bug that’s sweeping through his BMC team, said he hopes the final 3km climb up 10 percent grades up Mende is a mano-a-mano duel between the GC contenders.

“What I am hoping for tomorrow is that it will be hard enough that it will just be the pure climbers and not the sprinters in there trying to climb, that’s when you can get a bunch of jostling and nervousness,” van Garderen told VeloNews in Rodez.

“If it thins out a little bit and there is natural selection, it’s just riding it; if you’re strong, you’re there, it not, you’re gone,” he continued. “I have never raced it. I hear it’s 3km at 10.5 percent — that’s pretty steep. I feel good. We’ll see.”

Valverde, back in winning form this season after serving his two-year racing ban, says he will take the battle to Wiggins and the other GC rivals sitting ahead of him in the overall standings.

The Mende climb is not very long (3km is the official distance), but the steepest part is about 2km, with ramps as steep as 10.5 percent. The final stretch finishes atop a plateau on an airstrip, allowing anyone with legs to open up gaps to struggling rivals.

Leipheimer typically likes longer, steadier climbs and would be happy if he can stay close to Wiggins in Thursday’s fight at Mende to set up a potential ride into the yellow jersey in Sunday’s final climbing time trial at Col d’Eze.

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