The Russian is fourth with a clear shot at the podium.

Menchov shows some early season form. | Graham Watson photo
Menchov showed good form at the Dauphine

Denis Menchov (Rabobank) stepped off of the Rabobank bus with little fanfare before the start of Tuesday’s Stage 9 in Morzine. Big crowds gathered around the nearby RadioShack bus and there was almost no one to ask the quiet Russian for an autograph or a photo. That’s just the way he likes it.

“I made it through the first week in good shape. We’ll see what happens in the Pyrénées,” Menchov said before the start. “The hardest part of the Tour is just beginning. I hope my legs are good when it counts.”

Flash forward six hours and Menchov barely escaped with his GC hopes alive. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank) grabbed the yellow jersey and Alberto Contador (Astana) was right on his tail.

Menchov did his best to limit the damage, crossing the line 13th at 2:10 back and slotting into fourth overall at 2:58 back.

“I didn’t feel great today. It’s always harder for me after a rest day,” Menchov said at the line. “Obviously, Contador and Schleck were better than us today. Robert (Gesink) did a great job and we worked together on the flats to try to regain some time. Winning is complicated, but the podium is still within reach.”

Menchov is the silent threat in the 2010 Tour. With all attention on Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador, Menchov has been able to slip quietly under the radar so far.

Rabobank is sitting pretty. In addition to Menchov, the team has Gesink in seventh at 4:22. The Dutch team is hoping to play two cards.

“Our position is good, let’s see if we can do something with it,” Breukink told VeloNews. “Denis has good morale right now. He made it through the cobblestones without losing much time and he was strong in the first mountain stages. If he lost three or four minutes on the cobblestones, that would have changed things for him.”

Menchov could easily become the dark horse of this Tour. A winner of two Vueltas a España and last year’s Giro, the Rabobank captain is trying to become the first Russian to win the Tour.

He’s been close, riding to fourth in 2008 and fifth in 2006 with a stage win; Menchov is solid in both the time trials and the climbs.

Breukink says Menchov can use that experience to try to turn the balance against Contador and Schleck.

“Denis is very experienced in grand tours. He knows how to handle the pressure and he knows what it takes to win a grand tour. Last year’s Giro win was a huge boost to his confidence,” Breukink said. “The key in this Tour is to always be up there. It will be a Tour of who can last longest. That plays in Denis’ favor.”

Despite two top-10s, Menchov’s Tour record is largely inconsistent. He invariably has one bad day and loses a lot of time and his approach to this year’s Tour was far from ideal. He skipped defending his Giro crown to focus entirely on the Tour, but twice became sick during Europe’s hard winter and couldn’t train at altitude as much.

“We saw at the Dauphiné he was getting better. He had a good time trial (fourth) and was good in the mountains,” Breukink said. “His preparation for the Tour changed. He will be getting stronger as the Tour progresses. Whoever is strong in the Pyrénées should win this Tour.”

The other card in Rabobank’s deck is Gesink, racing his second Tour with ambitions of winning a mountain stage.

Gesink injured his wrist in the stage 2 pileup en route to Spa and almost abandoned. Otherwise the tall Dutch climber made it through the first part of the Tour in good shape.

“Having Gesink up there with Denis will help. Maybe (Gesink) can try to win a stage if they give him some space in the peloton,” Breukink said. “If Gesink can avoid a bad day, he can still have a good GC.”

Following Tuesday’s shootout over the Madeleine, Menchov might have to reset his focus on the podium.