(Photos: Yuzuru Sunada)
Reigning champion Alberto Contador is putting a brave face on a disappointing Tour de France campaign which has left him in a race against time to get fit for key stages in the Pyrenees.
Contador hampered an existing pain in his right knee during his fourth crash in eight days on Sunday's ninth stage, the second in the Massif Central. The Spaniard, who has won all six Grand Tour in which he has competed in, finished the stage with all the yellow jersey favorites but still has a deficit of 1min 30sec to Andy Schleck and 1:41 to Cadel Evans.
Schleck and Evans have shared the last four runner-up places on the race and, despite the threat of Italy's Ivan Basso, they are likely to be the Spaniard's biggest obstacles to a fourth yellow jersey.
At a rest day meeting with media on Monday Contador said he is not too worried about his deficit, claiming he always has the 20th and penultimate stage time trial in which to close any gap.
"I'm really not too preoccupied with the time I've lost because we still have the final time trial of the race," said Contador, whose time trialling skills in recent years have allowed him to cement victories he mostly built in the mountains. And he believes the Schlecks will have to also concern themselves with Evans, who is having a great race so far and is a strong time trialist himself.
"It's really too early to make any conclusions about any of my rivals but Evans is looking good, so is Basso and of course the Schleck brothers.
"I would put the Schlecks and Evans on an equal footing as far as the threat goes, although the Schlecks are a bit more dangerous because they can play off each other.
"But Evans is in a good position and he's strong in the time trial, so the Schlecks need to attack him as well.
The Spaniard conceded however he was concerned with the pain in his knee going into three difficult days in the Pyrenees starting Thursday.
"In a way I'm a little bit worried because when you race in the mountains you need to have everything on your side." "It's the same knee I hurt in the crash on stage five. It's swollen and I have pain but thankfully I didn't lose any more time."
"Today I rode my bike for just over an hour and the important thing over the next couple of days will be to try and get the swelling down." "But we have three days before the Pyrenees and I'm feeling optimistic."
Thursday's 12th stage stage to Luz-Ardiden is the first high mountaintop finish of the race.
Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis is confident Contador will get over the pain in time for the real yellow jersey battle up ahead.
"The pain in his knee is not going to stop him." "We're trying to keep our spirits high and we're fully motivated to helping him win the Tour de France," said the Dane."They (Schlecks) have been at the front of the race a lot this week, but so far we haven't seen anything yet."
Contador added: "I will take it day by day and, depending on how things are going with my knee, I will decide when I'm going to attack."