Thanks to his victories in the Vuelta a España (2005 and 2007) and the Giro d’Italia (2009), Denis Menchov is the most successful stage racer in this year’s Tour de France. Consequently, the Katusha rider understands the importance of making a good start to a grand tour, and he has been quietly impressive during the first stages of La Grande Boucle.
Although a wonderfully gifted time triallist, Menchov often struggles in short prologues, but he enjoyed a fine afternoon in the Tour’s opening 6.4km test around Liège. The Russian finished the day in 8th place, just 13 seconds off the winner Fabian Cancellara. More importantly, he finished close to the two main favourites for Tour victory, Bradley Wiggins and Cadel Evans.
“I felt in a good shape, even if it’s not my kind of race: I prefer longer time trials,” said Menchov, who praised his equipment. “I have confidence in the material and that’s already a lot.”
The opening road stages of a grand tour are always tense, nervous affairs, as 198 supremely fit and motivated riders do battle for the best positions in the peloton, often on narrow roads. Stage 1 to Seraing was marred by several crashes in the fast run-in to the finish, but Menchov was an oasis of calm in the midst of the tumult of the speeding pack.
Then, on the final climb to the line, Menchov sensed that the leading group might break in two, and he cleverly moved forward at just the right time to finish alongside his rivals for the podium in Paris. “During the first days it’s important not to have problems and not to lose time,” Menchov said. “I started the last climb a little bit too far back and I had to sprint a little bit, but finally it was ok.”
The opening week of the Tour de France also allows the favourites to fine-tune their condition ahead of the first mountain stages. Menchov finished safely in the peloton on stage 2 to Tournai and is confident that his form will continue to improve ahead of the first big rendezvous of the Tour. “I’m not at my top condition, but the Tour de France is still long,” he said.
Remarkably, in spite of his fine victory in the recent Russian time trial championships, many experts did not include Menchov in their list of favourites for the race. Not that the experienced Russian is worried about that – he prefers to have a quiet build-up to the Tour. And, after finishing 3rd overall in 2008 and 2nd in 2010, he has already shown that he can perform on the biggest stage of all…