Just before the Tour left Paris a fortnight ago, the German team Telekom seemed more embarrassed than pleased when their Kazakhstani rider Alexandre Vinokourov announced that he would be fighting "for a podium place - and maybe more." His team manager Walter Godefroot, a bespectacled, serious-looking Belgian not known for panicking, spluttered nervously, "He's smiling, so it must be a joke."
Lack of high-level experience in major Tours and a gruelling early season made Vinokourov's prediction seem unfeasible. However, now lying in second place a bare 21 seconds behind the race leader Lance Armstrong, Vinokourov has proved the armchair theorists - and his own team officials - very wrong indeed.
Vinokourov, a mild-mannered individual who mumbles more than he speaks, promised during the Tour's first rest-day at Narbonne: "I will attack again in the Pyrenees. As for the rest, we'll see." But like Armstrong, who emerged stronger from the cancer that nearly killed him, Vinokourov has been far more ambitious since Andrei Kivilev, his compatriot and closest friend in the peloton, died from head injuries in the Paris-Nice stage race in March.
Vinokourov clambered victorious and in tears on to the podium in Nice bearing a huge portrait of Kivilev. His next victory, at the Amstel Gold World Cup race, was, he said, a farewell gesture to "Kivi" because 33 days had passed since the rider had died, the traditional Kazakhstani period for mourning.
Three months on, Vinokourov's first Tour stage win, at Gap on Monday, was dedicated in part to Kivilev, "because he rode with me today". Now he aims to fulfil another of his friend's objectives and finish on the podium. Or maybe more.
"Vinokourov says his tough early season doesn't matter because he has the strength of two men - his own, and Kivilev's," Telekom's press officer Luuc Eisenga said.
Vinokourov said he will be satisfied in tomorrow's time trial if he loses around 90 seconds to Armstrong, a specialist against the clock, but the following four mountain stages should be another story. Under attack as never before since winning his first Tour in 1999, Armstrong admitted that the 47km race "will be the most important one for me since 1999", but David Millar has his own designs on the stage.
The Scot's good condition shone through in Marseille on Tuesday when he acted as lead-out man - the rider who ups the pace in the final metres of a stage - for his close friends, the Australians Bradley McGee and Baden Cooke.
"I did that for fun." he said afterwards. Tomorrow, though, the Scot will have the chance to ride for himself.
Overall (yellow jersey): 1 L Armstrong (US) US Postal 45:46:22; 2 A Vinokourov (Kaz) Telekom +21sec; 3 I Mayo (Sp) Euskaltel +1:02; 4 F Mancebo (Sp) Banesto +1:37; 5 T Hamilton (US) CSC +1:52; 6 J Ullrich (Ger) Bianchi +2:10; 7 I Basso (It) Fassa Bortolo +2:25; 8 R Heras (Sp) US Postal +2:28; 9 H Zubeldia (Sp) Euskaltel +3:25; 10 D Menchov (Rus) Banesto +3:45. Selected: 16 R Virenque (Fr) Quick Step +5:59; 19 D Millar (GB) Cofidis +7:15. Points (green jersey): 1 Cooke 140; 2 McEwen 131; 3 Zabel 112; 4 T Hushovd (Nor) Crédit Agricole 107; 5 J-P Nazon 100; 6 O'Grady 94. King of the Mountains (polka-dot jersey): 1 Virenque 135; 2 J Jaksche (Ger) ONCE 75; 3 Armstrong 74; 4 I Parra (Col) Kelme 71; 5 A Garmendia (Sp) Bianchi 62. Teams: 1 CSC 134:32:58; 2 iBanesto.com 27; 3 Euskatel +11:09; 4 US Postal +15:20; 5 Cofidis +21:16. Under-25s (white jersey): 1 Menchov 45:50:07; 2 S Chavanel (Fr) Brioches +5:59; 3 E Petrov (Rus) Banesto +9:41; 4 J M Mercado (Sp) Banesto +11:46; 5 M Astarloza (Sp) AG2R +12:29.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for Cycling WeeklyReuse content