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CARCASSONNE, France (AFP) — Jean-Christophe Peraud admitted he had not even ridden the three tough Pyrenean stages at the Tour de France in advance because he didn’t expect to be competing for a podium spot.
The 37-year-old French rider has unexpectedly found himself in sixth place overall and only 1:18 away from a podium position with less than a week to go.
The veteran Ag2r-La Mondiale rider is enjoying a surprise Indian summer to his career as he largely flies under the radar with most of the attention focussed on runaway race leader Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and young French hopes Romain Bardet, his teammate, and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr).
But now that he finds himself in the thick of battle for a top finish, Peraud is regretting not having studied the next three Pyrenean stages more closely.
Asked if he knew any of the climbs he would scale from Tuesday to Thursday, Peraud replied: “No, not at all. I’ve never done the Hautacam because I didn’t have enough time.
“We’ve had a very busy season and I’m a father. I regret that a little bit. I didn’t expect to be at this level.”
Asked where he’d expected to be at this time, Peraud alluded to the withdrawal of favorites Chris Froome (Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo) through injury earlier in the race.
“I expected there would two more ahead of me for starters,” he added.
But that’s not to say Peraud, whose best previous finish was ninth in 2011, didn’t come into the race with ambitions.
“The aim was fifth place but now there’s perhaps room to do better.”
One who can hardly do any better is Nibali, who leads second-placed Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) by 4:37.
Even so, Nibali said he and his Astana teammates will need to take care.
“The week that’s coming is very important, the best thing will be to keep our concentration because there will be difficulties,” said the 29-year-old Italian.
“We must be wary of breakaways because there will be people who are now a long way back in the standings who could get into a dangerous breakaway, so it could become difficult to manage the race and the support of the team will be very important.”
Tuesday’s 237.5-kilometer trek from Carcassonne to Bagneres-de Luchon is the longest stage of the race and tackles the hors categorie Porte de Bales climb before heading into a speedy, 20km descent to the finish.
Wednesday’s stage from Saint-Gaudens is more than 100km shorter at 124.5km, but that will merely push the pace up and it includes three first category climbs before the hors categorie summit finish at Saint-Lary.
It’s the biggest danger for sprinters, who will need to get home inside the time limit in order to continue.
If that isn’t enough, Thursday’s 145.5km stage from Pau tackles the two behemoths of the race, the Col du Tourmalet and the Hautacam summit finish.
With Nibali almost over the hill and out of sight, there is at least an intriguing battle for second with five riders separated by just 1:31.
American Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) is fifth and says that closeness should make for exciting racing amongst the leading names.
“It definitely makes for interesting racing, if everyone was separated by two minutes [between each rider] it wouldn’t be that much fun to watch anymore,” he said.
“Since Nibali has a solid lead he looks almost untouchable. It’s good there are more battles going on, it makes it exciting.”
Even so, van Garderen denied the chasers have already given up on overhauling Nibali to simply concentrate on battling each other.
“I don’t think we’ve been racing each other rather than racing [Nibali] necessarily,” he said.
“It’s just when he attacks no one has the legs to follow but then when we start to chase it becomes tactical because some people want to pull and try to get him back and other people want to get a free ride.”