It will be a battle of orange for the final spot on the podium at the Tour de France.
Samuel Sánchez of Euskaltel-Euskadi and Denis Menchov of Rabobank – two riders whose team colors play up orange in a big way – will square off in Saturday’s time trial with a spot in Paris in the offing.
Separated by just 21 seconds, the duel will be nearly as close as the one for the yellow jersey between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck.
The Olympic road champion admits he’d like to have more time on the powerful Russian going into the 52km time trial from Bordeaux to Pauillac.
“Things are complicated for me to keep the third place,” Sánchez said before Friday’s start. “I needed to take more time on the Tourmalet. Denis is very strong in the time trial and the differences are small. You know I will give 100 percent. The podium was the goal at the start of this Tour and to have it so close only motivates me more than ever.”
Sánchez shook off a scary, early-stage crash Thursday on the road to the Tourmalet to put in a late-stage attack on Menchov, extracting eight seconds on the effort to tighten his grip on third to 21 seconds.
“I don’t know what happened in the crash. I either hit a hole in the road or clipped pedals, but I fell forward. I was really shaken up and it was touch-and-go whether I was able to continue in the race,” he continued. “I was really hurting in the crash. I didn’t even try to follow Schleck and Contador when they attacked. I was able to gain some more time (on Menchov), but I believe it might not be enough.”
The Rabobank team is quietly confident that Menchov can deliver the podium spot tomorrow. The team previewed the course in June and planned to drive in a team car immediately following Friday’s stage.
The Russian couldn’t respond when Schleck and Contador rode away up the Tourmalet, and struggled to counter late moves by Joaquim Rodríguez (Katusha), clearly trying to limit the damage to Sánchez.
There was an outside shot that Menchov could have closed the gap on second place, but he’s not too far out of range, with Andy Schleck now 3:45 ahead of Menchov.
“It will be difficult to chase Sánchez, and forget about Schleck,” Menchov said. “I will do my best. It won’t be easy. I know (Sánchez) is good in the time trial.”
Rabobank sport director Adri van Houwelingen said the podium is a realistic goal.
“It will be close. It’s a pity that Denis lost some seconds on the Tourmalet because he will need those tomorrow. That could be the difference,” he said. “There will be no excuses. It’s long, it’s flat. The strongest man will win.”