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PAU, France (VN) — Denis Menchov was tipped to win the Tour de France two weeks ago when the race began in Liège, Belgium. He started the race red-hot, avoided early catastrophe and sat fifth overall, but then something went wrong.
Menchov (Katusha) now sits 16th overall with only two big mountain stages left and the Russian looks unlikely to finish on the podium, as he did in twice before (three times, if you count his best young rider prize in 2003). For someone with his palmarès, a string of grand tour top 10s and wins in the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta a España, it is curious.
Katusha sports director, Valerio Piva indicated that the 34-year-old from Russia might be getting long in the tooth.
“It’s a change of generations,” Piva told VeloNews. “Denis is not as young as he was before when he won the Vuelta and the Giro. It’s normal.”
Menchov last won the Giro in 2009 and the Vuelta in 2005 and 2007. His main rival in those races, Carlos Sastre, retired last year. Menchov was buoyed by a second place in the Tour two years ago and the usual sensations ahead of this year’s race.
“He was confident,” Piva said on Monday as Menchov and his other charges prepared for the 15th leg to Pau. “He said, ‘Ok, I know myself and I know that I’m ready. I never have good condition before the big tours.’ So, he started the Tour with confidence.”
Piva joined Katusha over the winter with Menchov. He came to the Russian ProTeam after a long tenure with HTC-Highroad; Menchov came from one horrendous year at Geox-TMC and a long run with Rabobank. The two spoke during the Tour’s traditional warm-up race, the Critérium du Dauphiné. Piva was concerned after Menchov lost time on the several key stages, including the mountain stage to Morzine, where he ceded 13 minutes.
After the start of the Tour in Liège, Piva was relieved, however. Menchov placed eighth in the prologue time trial near favorites Bradley Wiggins (Sky) and Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Cannondale). With two long time trials ahead, totaling 95 kilometers, Katusha’s hopes were high. It was short lived.
The team’s sprinter, Oscar Freire crashed in the stage to Metz and suffered fractured ribs and a punctured lung. The fall seemed to be a bad sign for the team. Menchov survived the large pile-up and the mountain stage to Le Planche des Belles Filles, but suffered in the summit finish to La Toussuire. Similar to the Dauphiné, he lost around 14 minutes.
“He was really bad, empty. It was a surprise for me because in the days before he was always in the front, easy, no problem… It’s not that he was sick or… Maybe it was because it was the first time this year he was in a big stage with the top riders. Maybe he missed a little bit of high rhythm,” Piva explained.
“Of course, the podium or a top five is gone now. The only chance he has is maybe top 10, because he has five to six riders in front of him, they are there because he had a really bad day.”
Piva said that a stage win is possible. He also wants Menchov to continue as a leader to help Katusha’s younger riders learn.
The two also talked recently about the Vuelta. His Tour hopes gone, Menchov asked to support Joaquím Rodríguez, who placed second in the Giro behind Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Sharp). From Tour contender to Vuelta domestique — quite a decline for the Russian winner of three grand tours.