Six days from Paris, and the balance of power in the 2008 Tour de France could hardly be more delicate, with six riders still in contention for the overall victory. Yesterday was a rest day in Cuneo, Italy, with Frank Schleck of Luxembourg leading the race by a mere seven seconds from the Austrian Bernhard Kohl, with the former yellow jersey wearer Cadel Evans at eight.
"I don't ever remember such an open Tour," Christian Prudhomme, head of race officials, said. "There are six riders within less than 50 seconds of each other. Even when we get to [the legendary climb] Alpe D'Huez on Wednesday, we won't know who's won overall."
For many, Evans remains the favourite. A skilled time-trialling specialist, the Australian could well out-trump his rivals in the 53km lone race against the clock on Saturday.
As for Schleck, his team's collective strength in the mountains is what may keep him in yellow. Their different approaches to Tour success – Evans the individualist, Schleck the team-based rider – are noticeable even in their press conferences.
Six days ago as race leader, Evans had been flanked by his press officer and team manager, wore a logoless black shirt and walked in with the Australian pop band Midnight Oil providing a soundtrack: all very much the rock star – a lone rock star – in the making.
At a press conference held yesterday, Schleck, on the other hand, brought all his team-mates with him and was wearing a distinctly untrendy team-issue tracksuit.
He and his eight CSC-Saxo Bank team-mates then gazed down from a raised platform on the assembled scrum of journalists and gate-crashing, camera-wielding German tourists below them with an air of detached bemusement.
But yesterday even Schleck's team manager, Bjarne Riis, criticised the yellow jersey for hiding behind his all-powerful squad for too long.
"When [his team-mate] Carlos [Sastre] and Denis Menchov attacked on Sunday, Frank should have gone with them." Riis insisted. "He did not have the confidence. Frank is afraid he will crack, but sometimes if you want to win races you have to forget that and leave your brain behind."
For Riis the only path to victory will be through suffering. "I told Frank, if he wants to win, it's going to hurt," he said.
Today's 3,800 metres of Alpine climbing will be as good a place as any for Schleck to learn that particular lesson.
Alasdair Fotheringham writes for www.cyclingweekly.co.uk
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