(Photos: Yuzuru Sunada)
Saxo Bank manager Bjarne Riis admits Alberto Contador must have at least one good day in the mountains soon if he is to have any chance of defending his Tour de France crown.
Contador came into the race with high hopes of becoming only the second rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double, having won the Italian race in May. However, since the start of his campaign Spain's three-time champion has encountered misfortune on nearly every stage.
The Saxo Bank climbing specialist lost over a minute to his rivals due to a spill on the opening stage and then proceeded to hit the deck three more times in a crash-marred first week of racing. During those crashes he has picked up a knee injury.
On the first day in the high mountains Thursday Contador's knee lasted the pace, but the Spaniard lost 33sec to Frank Schleck and 13sec to two other yellow jersey rivals - Andy Schleck and Cadel Evans.
Going into Saturday's 14th stage, when the peloton rides to a second high mountaintop finish at Plateau de Beille, Contador is four minutes behind race leader Thomas Vockler of Europcar. Crucially, he is 2:11 behind Frank Schleck, 1:54 behind Evans and 1:43 behind Andy Schleck.
With Friday's stage finishing downhill in Lourdes, the 168.5km stage from Saint-Gaudens to Beille on Saturday is expected to host another attacking frenzy from the Schleck brothers.
Riis admits much could depend on the state of Contador's knee, but he feels the Spaniard can afford to lose a little more time before the panic starts to set in.
"If Alberto had a bad day yesterday (Thursday), when the good day comes then I believe that the whole Tour can change again, and he can suddenly be in the game," Riis said at the start of Friday's 13th stage. "But he needs a good day."
Riis denied that Contador's bid for a sixth consecutive victory in a Grand Tour would be over if he was left trailing again on Saturday. "No, because maybe he will lose 15 or 20sec tomorrow but still be in the game," he added.
The 14th stage is the third and last in the Pyrenees, and features a total of five mountain passes before tackling the 15.8km climb to Plateau de Beille. In the crucial third week the climbing in the Alps starts for three days on