Team Columbia’s Kim Kirchen, currently second in the Tour de France general classification at 12 seconds behind Gerolsteiner’s Stefan Shumacher, started this year’s race making no secret of his GC ambitions, and in the Tour’s first real test, stage 4’s 29.5km time trial, the Luxembourger put in a strong performance to finish just 18 seconds off the winner’s pace.
The yellow jersey is in sight, and team manager Rolf Aldag says Kirchen will target Thursday’s hilly sixth stage to initiate the next phase of his plan.
“We can now say that all the big favorites will consider Kim as a more credible favorite and I’m sure they’re not going to forget about him in the stage to Super-Besse,” Aldag told AFP.
“Kim is not the big favorite for the yellow jersey, but we’ll be sticking to our focus of supporting him as much as much as we can. Stage six is the next big goal for him, and we’ll see what we can deliver there.”
Beginning on tight, twisting roads, the 195km stage from Aigurande to Super-Besse leads the peloton up into the strength-sapping hills near the Massif Central. The Tour’s first summit finish is at the end of a manageable 11km ascent, whose last 1.5km is at a tough gradient of 10 percent.
Breakaways are a certainty, but Kirchen and his team are unlikely to allow them too much freedom on a stage that is perfectly suited to the Luxembourger’s style of riding. Kirchen, like Valverde, is considered a “puncheur” who can sprint away from rivals on shorter climbs, especially those with steep gradients.
Silence-Lotto’s Cadel Evans, one of the generally acknowledged favorites to win this year’s Tour, knows Kirchen well, having been “punched” into second place by him on the steep climb to the finish line of the Fleche Wallonne one-day classic earlier this spring.
But the experienced Australian, who has finished in the Tour’s top 10 three times in his past three participations, is also intelligent enough to know when to remain alert.
“In my mind, for the general classification this (time trial) has been the first appointment for the overall favorites,” the Australian said after a strong time trial performance that allowed him to take 1 minute 7 seconds from Caisse d’Epargne’s Alejandro Valverde.
“Like I say, so far so good. Let’s see in Super-Besse. That will be the next big showing for the GC favorites.”
Photo by: Roberto Bettini