VISÉ, Belgium (VN) — Denis Menchov (Katusha) sent shivers through the Tour de France peloton over the weekend. The Russian, known as the “Silent Assassin,” rocketed through the prologue time trial on Saturday and reminded everyone he’s a force to reckon with.
The 34-year-old placed sixth, but only six seconds back from top GC favorite Bradley Wiggins (Sky). The result must concern Wiggins, Cadel Evans and the others who remember that Menchov already has three grand tour titles in his palmarès. He dealt with Danilo Di Luca to win the Giro d’Italia in 2009 and twice won the Vuelta a España over Carlos Sastre, the first one given to him after Roberto Heras was disqualified.
The Giro and Vuelta rank lower than the Tour in terms of prestige, but are just as hard. The wins, added to two GC podium spots at the Tour and the best young rider award in 2003, single him out as a danger man and a possible Tour winner. Bookmakers now give Menchov 16:1 odds. Wiggins enjoys the best odds at 6:5.
Katusha rescued Menchov in December after Geox-TMC folded and left him high and dry. He’d enjoyed placings, but nothing particularly impressive throughout 2011. Many critics questioned whether or not he was finished after long runs with top teams Banesto and Rabobank. He returned to a first division team this year, but Menchov did little to indicate he’d do so well in the Tour. He placed fourth overall in the Vuelta a Andalucía at the start of the year and won the Russian time trial championship just before traveling to Liège for the Tour’s Grand Départ.
“The results this year don’t make him a top favorite and I like that situation very much,” Katusha general manager, Hans-Michael Holczer told VeloNews.
“I saw him two weeks ago in the Russian championships. I knew he was pretty good there, impressive. I had hopes that he’d finish in the first 30 [in the prologue]. In the end, we’re happy.”
Menchov’s best previous effort in a Tour prologue was 27th in 2007, losing 23 seconds to overall contender Andreas Klöden. Now, however, putting time into all the likely GC challengers bar Wiggins, he’s able to think about a Tour podium and even an overall win. There are still 18 days, with two time trials to race, longer individual tests near 50km each that better suit Menchov.
“It’s too early to say [what’s possible]. Nothing’s impossible, but, the big but, we should be very careful,” Holczer added. “We enjoyed a very special second place with Joaquím Rodríguez in the Giro d’Italia. Second in the Tour de France would be something even more special. We should be very careful about betting on that. We’re always hopeful, but the clock will decide the times in the end.”
Menchov explained on Sunday evening in a team statement, “I’m more and more confident about the rest of the competition.”
The competition is likely become more and more confident in him.