Russiaâ€™s Katusha Team comes to Liege Saturday with a two-pronged approach to this yearâ€™s Tour de France: help Denis Menchov obtain as high a GC finish as possible and win a stage or two (and perhaps challenge for the green jersey) with Oscar Freire. While not incredibly lofty, these goals might seem a tad unrealistic as they hinge upon men who could find themselves outclassed by younger, better competition. Or will they?
Letâ€™s start with Menchov: The 34-year-old Russian is only one Tour removed from his stunning third-place (second-place) finish behind Alberto Contador (Andy Schleck) in the 2010 Tour de France. Were it not for his (poor) decision to follow the money to Geox-TMC last season, he might very well have found himself on the podium again. Instead, Menchov finished inside the top-10 in both of the grand tours he enteredâ€”albeit, rather anonymously.
If things go their way, Katusha might have hit the transfer jackpot, as this yearâ€™s Tour de France plays right into Menchovâ€™s hands. The gentle parcours is unlikely to force him to struggle in the mountains, while the time trials play to his strengths (heâ€™s won several grand tour TTâ€™s throughout his career). Another spot on the podium is a good betâ€”assuming Menchov and his relatively untested team (the majority of which has never really ridden a grand tour in support of a GC contender) are up for the rigors of a 3-week grand tour.
As for Freire, his fastest days might be behind him, but the Spaniard should fare well in a race that features several tricky stage finishes. In fact, were I Freire, I would be less worried about Kittel and Cavendish (who I will never beat in a head-to-head field sprint) than I would be about Sagan and Boasson Hagen (who possess skill sets similar to mine). Regardless, itâ€™s clear from Freireâ€™s performance in the spring classics that he has understood the need for a new approach given his age. Instead of fighting to stay the rider he was when he started, heâ€™s proven willing to evolve.
Man of the Hour
This might be Menchovâ€™s last best chance for a high finish at the Tour.
At 28, Yuri Trofimov is the youngest rider on Katushaâ€™s Tour rosterâ€”and he hasnâ€™t won a race since 2009. Moving onâ€¦
On the Hot Seat
This might be Menchovâ€™s last chance for a high finish at the Tour.
Luca Paolini is one of the most experienced riders in the sport, someone who knows how to get every last ounce of bang for his buck. His only grand tour victory came in Stage 12 of the 2006 Tour of Spain. Look for him to try and add another at the Tour.
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