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Mont Ventoux
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Tales from the peloton, July 18, 2007

Iban Mayo: Temporary return to form or genuine GC contender?

After several years in Tour wilderness, the Basque GC hope Iban Mayo was regarded by very few as a possible winner of the race. However, he's very much in the mix after two strong days in the Alps. Cyclingnews' Shane Stokes considers Mayo's chances.

Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval-Prodir) gets second
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As the Tour de France resumed Tuesday morning in Val d'Isère, there was an upsurge of interest in a slender rider from the Saunier Duval-Prodir team. Four years ago, Iban Mayo was seen as one of the most likely challengers to Lance Armstrong's crown but since taking a stage win on Alpe d'Huez and finishing sixth overall, he has done nothing of note in the French race.

That all changed on Sunday. Mayo stunned the peloton when he finished second to Michael Rasmussen on the Tour Alpine stage to Tignes. He attacked in the final kilometres of the climb to leave others such as Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Frank Schleck (CSC), Cadel Evans (Predictor - Lotto), Andrey Kashechkin (Astana) in his immediate wake. Alberto Contador, Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel), Carlos Sastre (CSC), Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne), Andreas Klöden and Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) were even further back, highlighting his strong performance.

It was a surprise for the fans and a huge morale boost for himself. "I'm satisfied with the way in which the stage unfolded," the Basque rider told the media on the Tour's rest day in Tignes. "I was the first to cross the finish line after Rasmussen, who had opened a large gap, and I really enjoyed that moment. Being in the spotlight during the Tour as I had been in the past was one of my greatest ambitions, and my dream has now come true. The original goal was scoring a [stage] win, but once I realised it wouldn't be possible, I chose to reach the highest spot I could."

Mayo's Tour woes started in 2004 and came only a matter of weeks after he dominated the Dauphiné Libéré. He had won the prologue and the stage four time trial to the top of Mont Ventoux, beating Tyler Hamilton, Oscar Sevilla and Lance Armstrong in the general classification there. However his form collapsed in the Tour and he pulled out. In the months after that there were rumours that he had mononucleosis; his next big win did not come until stage 6 of the 2006 Dauphiné, two years after his last success in the same race.

Iban Mayo (Saunier Duval-Prodir) attacked
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The fervent Euskaltel - Euskadi supporters seized on this and hoped that he would perform well in last year's Tour de France. However, once again, he withdrew. The enigmatic rider returned in August and won the fourth stage and the overall classification in the Vuelta Ciclista a Burgos then, frustratingly, had a relatively anonymous showing in the Vuelta a España.

The rollercoaster ride was hard to understand. At the Spanish Tour, the talk was that Mayo was a complicated person who, perhaps due to the burden of expectation, was unable to apply himself properly and fully realise his talent. When he left the Euskaltel Euskadi team at the end of the season, it was seen by some as a sign that he could no longer accept the pressure of leadership.

However, something is clearly different since his move to Saunier Duval-Prodir. He rode the Giro d'Italia this spring and, despite being several kilos overweight, won the 19th stage to Terme di Comano. It was his first Grand Tour stage victory since the Alpe d'Huez win in 2003.

Mayo was asked on Monday what differences there were as regards the build-up to this year's Tour. "With regard to training, there haven't been many. I just tried to do things right so that I was in good shape when I came here. Perhaps I didn't feel the pressure this time. Taking into account how things had turned out to be in the past few years, I had nothing to lose.

"Well, I'm not obsessed with it. And I'm not saying that to shake the pressure off my shoulders, because I don't really feel like that this year. Quite the contrary: I'm having a great time."

-Iban Mayo when asked about his GC intentions

"My victory at the Giro d'Italia boosted my morale, and some days before this Tour, I noticed that I was okay. But you're never sure until you hit the road and face a race like yesterday's. Since the early stages, I've feeling all right. However, it's only when you measure yourself up against the big guns that you can tell whether you're really in good shape or not."

Mayo was also asked about the stage to Tignes, and also if Tuesday's final Alpine stage could be one to eliminate Vinokourov as an overall contender.

"Yesterday's final pass was tough but not useful to make a selection. Besides, we were running into the wind, and this helped balance forces. Perhaps I expected Sastre or Menchov to be part of the leading bunch, but the rest were all there: Moreau, Valverde, Contador. These are the big names."

He then correctly assessed that Astana's leader would be vulnerable on stage nine. "As for Vinokourov, it's quite obvious that he has to be left behind tomorrow, because then there's the time-trial for him to make up for losses. He has shown what a great rider he is, so you can never think his chances are over. We could have ruled him out yesterday, but then each rider minded his own business."

Iban Mayo (R) keeps his legs fresh
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Mayo started the ninth stage in third place overall, 2'39" behind Michael Rasmussen's yellow jersey. He once again rode strongly, climbing well on the Galibier and finishing fifth into Briançon. And while Alejandro Valverde edged ahead of him thanks to a faster finish plus the time bonus achieved there, Linus Gerdemann's collapse means that Mayo remains third overall, 2'39" back.

When he's on top form, he's a stronger time trialist than the Dane. He should therefore take time out of him in the 54 kilometre Albi TT next Saturday and could move closer to taking the maillot jaune. He'll also have the benefit of fanatical Basque support in the Pyrenees. However, he knows only too well the pressure of chasing a top result in the Tour, and says that he will take each day as it comes.

"Will I go for the GC? Well, I'm not obsessed with it. And I'm not saying that to shake the pressure off my shoulders, because I don't really feel like that this year. Quite the contrary: I'm having a great time," he stated. "This Tour is different because there is no clear leader so far. This means that any rider feeling well and confident can make it. So yes, in this sense, I am ambitious.

"The only thing I need is not having any physical problems, because if I'm fine, then I feel fully confident. But experience has taught me what the Tour is like. Anybody can have a bad day in France."

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