LAVAUR, France (AFP) – Olympic champion Samuel Sanchez says he is hoping to put his disappointing start to the Tour de France behind him with a stage victory in the Basque stronghold of the Pyrenees.
Just over a year ago, Sanchez upset the form book to finish fourth overall in Paris behind compatriot Alberto Contador, Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck and Russian Denis Menchov.
After losing 1 minute, 20 seconds on the first stage of the current race, when a crash caused a split in the peloton and also delayed Contador, Sanchez is now over two and a half minutes behind the likes of Schleck and Australian Cadel
Sanchez, the Olympic road race champion in Beijing in 2008, now admits he will have to “keep chipping away” at his deficit in the remaining stages if he is to have any chance of a podium place.
Before then he is hoping to bag a stage win that would help boost the team’s flagging morale after key team-mates Amets Txurruka and Ivan Velasco were lost to injury during the crash-marred first nine stages.
“The start of the Tour hasn’t been as positive as I’d hoped,” Sanchez said before the start of Wednesday’s 11th stage to Lavaur.
“On the first stage I lost 1:20. Now I’m two and a half minutes behind my rivals and definitely the worst GC (general classification) guy.
“But there’s still a long way to go. Little by little maybe I can fight my way back, but right now my biggest aim is a stage win.”
When the Tour heads into the mountains, fans from countries worldwide flock to line the route of the climbs, especially the final climb when it is a mountaintop finish.
In the Pyrenees, the predominant Basques see it as just another reason to party, and turn up in their thousands wearing their traditional orange T-shirts and carrying signs of ‘Aupa!’ (Go for it!) to encourage their idols.
Thursday’s 12th stage is the first of three in a row in the Pyreenes, and could stage a first battle between reigning champion Alberto Contador and Schleck, who has a 1:30 lead on the Spaniard.
“On the first stage in the Pyrenees there will be a big selection between the GC guys,” said Sanchez, who nevertheless believes the third week in the Alps will really decide the race.
In the meantime, he is dreaming of giving the Basques something to shout about.
“The roads will be full of orange T-shirts, so if I could win a stage in the Pyrenees it would be huge,” he added.
“Winning a stage is really important. It stays with you for the rest of your life.
“But if I had to choose between a stage win and the podium in Paris, I’d choose the podium.”