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Focus on the Favorites: Denis Menchov

Denis Menchov is a former grand tour winner, expert climber, victor in a time trial or two, and leader of Rabobank, one of the bigger budget teams. He's hitting his peak at age 29, and has a few Tours of France under his belt. All systems go.

Yet still, there are any number of reasons not to rate Denis Menchov's chances in the Tour de France. First, he's not a prototypical climber... think Ullrich, turning over a huge gear. This served him fine last year in winning the stage to Pla de Beret in the Pyrenees, but he got dropped on the longest, steepest slopes of the Alps, conceding time at Alpe d'Huez and La Toussuire. And if he's won a couple time trials, those were in the 2005 Vuelta; last seen at the Tour, he was losing 4.30 to Honchar at Montceau les Mines... or more to the point, 4' to Andreas Kloden. Not good. That slow fade from third to sixth overall led some (CS) to wonder if he's too soft for the Tour. He's also said to lack tactical sense. Oh, and everyone thinks his team will stab him in the back and focus instead on individual glory.

But it would be a mistake to ignore him. His climbing prowess is legit, and if he had trouble in the Alps last year, he shone in the Pyrenees, where this Tour will be won. He was ninth in the first ITT last year, and may indeed like this year's course better than some of the guys in front of him, like Evans and Sastre, who are known to suffer on long, flat ITTs. In the Dauphine just a couple weeks ago, Menchov came in 5th in the gentle, 40km Anneyron ITT, just 39 seconds down on Vinokourov. Menchov finished 4th in the Dauphine, and I know we're not supposed to get too hung up on the results there, but more than many of the favorites Menchov looked distinctly like a rider on good form, doing well while conserving his strength.

One possible explanation for his fade last year is that he peaked too soon. Well, early indications are that Menchov is on a good course this year... we'll see. If his naysayers are right, it's not the timing of his peak but rather his ability to extend it for three weeks that's his ceiling. Another possible explanation is that last year's course wasn't good for him. If so, this year's presents a better opportunity to limit losses in the Alps and sock it to the little climber types who left him in the dust in 2006. What if Menchov is second among the favorites to Vino in the Albi time trial? What if the downhill finishes and lack of HC climbs in the Alps keep him on the wheels of the Sastres and Evanses? What if Kloden, the better time trialist, really does commit himself to helping a golden-fleeced Vinokourov defend the jersey? What if it's him and Vino, mano a mano, on the slopes of the Pyrenees?

Hey, stranger things have happened. The main reason this promises to be an exciting Tour is the sheer number of guys whose ceiling is the maillot jaune, and whose floor is, well, disaster. It's hard to see him beating Valverde if the latter can make it to Paris, and if Kloden rides for himself, there's little Menchov does that Kloden can't do at least as well. Ditto for Vino if he doesn't have any bad days. But Denis Menchov can survive a war of attrition if things break right, and can make the podium even without all this extra help. You never know.