(Photos: Yuzuru Sunada)
Andy Schleck, runner-up to Alberto Contador for the past two years, was taking stock here Monday after a dramatic first week's racing in which he emerged unscathed from all the carnage that left many of his fancied Tour de France rivals battered and bruised.
Lying in fifth place overall, the Leopard trek rider is already 1min 30secs ahead of Contador with the Pyrenees looming later in the week.
"The Tour de France really begins in the Pyrenees," Schleck told a rest day press conference here. "Yesterday (Sunday) and the day before, I was tired. Even without the high mountains, it was a very tough first week, maybe the hardest I have known on the Tour. You don't need mountains to have a tough course, especially on the
roads we had this week."
"We spent a lot of energy to stay ahead and avoid problems. But the battle for the overall always starts in the high mountains."
The Luxembourg'er said he was relieved to have avoided all the carnage in a crash-ridden first week and suggested he now had an edge over Contador.
"Of course, this is not a disadvantage. It was a first week that didn't suit us very well, if at all. But we have a good team and we also got lucky. No attacks and we are still in a great position."
Schleck played down reports that Contador, who suffered his fourth crash in eight days on Sunday, was suffering from an injured knee.
"I haven't heard about it," he said. "He had been pretty unlucky. Yesterday (Sunday), he had a stupid fall, getting his handlebars tangled in Karpets' saddle. But it doesn't change anything because there other riders out there, not just him."
"It is not just a duel between Alberto and me."
Among those that Schleck is keeping a wary eye on are Rabobank's Robert Gesink and the RadioShack pair of Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloden who are all strong in the mountains. And then there is the Australian Cadel Evans (BMC), who is lying third 2min 26secs behind race leader Thomas Voeckler (Europcar).
"Cadel is very good at the moment and has a great team. He's definitely someone to be reckoned with. He's stronger than he has been for awhile."
"There is also my brother (and teammate Frank) who is going really well. I think we are going to have five or six riders who will be battling it out for the final victory."
Looming large on the horizon - literally and figuratively - is Thursday's stage 12 to Luz Ardiden.
Tough though it will be Schleck does not believe, however, that it will necessarily determine who will stand on top of the podium in Paris on July 24.
"Not at all," he said. "The Pyrenees are hard. Luz-Ardiden is the harder of the two Pyrenean stages, even if there is also another big one at Plateau de Beille (Saturday). "There are the Alps to come after that. Even if you have a ten minutes lead, with the Galibier and Alpe d'Huez, everything can change. You can have some real surprises in the Alps."