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Valverde still sees Vinokourov as major rival

Spaniard Alejandro Valverde has refused to rule out Alexander Vinokourov’s chances for the yellow jersey this year. His co-captain Oscar Pereiro, however, believes otherwise, saying that Astana’s other star - Andreas Klöden – may pose a bigger threat over the final two weeks of the Tour de France. Valverde played a key role in Sunday's eighth stage when a series of attacks by Frenchman Christophe Moreau led to the Astana pair losing more time on their rivals.

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Pereiro says Klöden a bigger threat

By Justin Davis, Agence France Presse

Spaniard Alejandro Valverde has refused to rule out Alexander Vinokourov’s chances for the yellow jersey this year.

His co-captain Oscar Pereiro, however, believes otherwise, saying that Astana’s other star – Andreas Klöden – may pose a bigger threat over the final two weeks of the Tour de France.

Valverde played a key role in Sunday’s eighth stage when a series of attacks by Frenchman Christophe Moreau led to the Astana pair losing more time on their rivals.

However Valverde, who is firmly among the yellow jersey favorites but who has still to finish a Tour de France, said he remains confident that Vinokourov would bounce back into contention.

Vinokourov, a third place finisher on the Tour in 2003, has been riding through the pain of having 30 stitches in his knee since a crash on the fifth stage.

But after seeing him perform on Sunday, Valverde feels the crafty Kazakh still has plenty to offer.

“Vinokourov only really suffered on the last climb on Sunday, on all the others he was strong,” Valverde said Monday during a rest-day press conference on Monday.

His teammate Pereiro disagreed.

The Spaniard, who finished runner-up to disgraced winner Floyd Landis last year, feels the media should forget about Vinokourov and start focusing on Klöden.

Klöden also crashed on the fifth stage, fracturing his tailbone.

However the German, who finished runner-up in 2004 and third overall last year, looked much stronger than Vinokourov on the way to the race’s first summit finish on Sunday.

Despite their rivals taking over a minute off them, Klöden was likely following orders to chaperone Vinokourov all the way to the finish, which he did.

Astana could be forced into a dramatic change of tactics on Tuesday’s ninth stage, which features two hors categorie climbs, which may prompt further efforts to hamper the suffering Astana pair’s yellow jersey bids.

“I think it’s a mistake to think of Vinokourov as the strongest,” said Pereiro. “For me, Klöden and (Andrey) Kashechkin are the strongest riders in Astana.”

If Vinokourov struggles, as he did on the final climb on Sunday, Astana may be forced to push Klöden into a leadership role.

Caisse d’Epargne team manager Eusebio Unzue, agrees that it is the German who should already be the team’s leader.

“For me, Klöden is still the biggest favorite in the race,” Unzue said. “He has looked strong on the climbs so far, and he’s probably the better time trialist of the two (Astana riders).”

Valverde maintains that both he and Pereiro remain their team’s co-leaders, despite the fact that it was only Valverde who managed to stay up with Moreau and the rest of the favorites in the finale of Sunday’s stage.

But having crashed out for the past two years due to injury, Valverde knows that he has yet to be tested over three tough weeks of racing on the Tour.

“We’ve got nine days of racing in the legs, I’m fourth in the general classification and I’m feeling confident, especially after yesterday’s stage,” said the Spaniard. “But there are still a lot of stages to go, and the time trials and Pyrénées will be decisive. And I’ve yet to experience a third week of racing on the Tour.

“Oscar has showed he’s been strong so far in the Alps, so the team really still has two options.”