Menchov covets maiden Tour title
Missing last year's Tour de France has given Denis Menchov extra motivation to fight for the yellow jersey at this year's edition of the world's greatest cycling race.
Menchov, Russia's best stage rider of the past decade, was forced to watch the 2011 Tour on television after his Italian team Geox were not invited by the French organisers.
"In a way it has helped me recharge my batteries," Menchov, who joined Russian team Katusha on a two-year contract in December after Geox ended their involvement in professional cycling after a single season, said.
"There's no point for me in dwelling on the past. I'm a firm believer that whatever happens to you in life must have a reason. So rather than sit here and curse my bad luck, I want to look on the positive side," said the Russian, who celebrated his 34th birthday last week.
"I had a chance to watch the race from the outside, analyse it. It has given me a different perspective on the race. Not being part of the Tour last year definitely made me more determined to try to win it."
Menchov has won two other major three-week races, the Tour of Spain in 2005 and 2007 and the 2009 Giro d'Italia. His heart, however, has belonged to the French race ever since he earned the 2003 Tour's white jersey, given to the best young (U25) rider, after beating his nearest rival by more than 40 minutes.
"It's the biggest race in cycling and the toughest to win," he said.
"In the Giro and Vuelta you usually have only two or three guys with a realistic chance for the overall title. In the Tour every year you have at least five or six contenders, making it very difficult to win. It's like climbing Mount Everest - if you reach the summit, you are on top of the world.
"In my career I've won just about every thing else except the Tour," said Menchov, whose best finish was third in 2010. "I've been close a couple of times, reached the podium...but you always dream of getting to the top. Having that yellow jersey is what really matters."
While other top riders may have multiple goals in an Olympic year, Menchov is concentrating solely on the Tour.
"Unlike some previous years I won't ride the Giro or Vuelta," he said. "As for the Olympics, I'll just have to wait and see how I feel after the Tour. In any case, in London I'm interested only in the individual time trial."
Menchov named three-times Tour winner Alberto Contador as the favourite for the July race again, brushing off any suggestion the Spaniard might be distracted with the Court of Arbitration for Sport delaying its verdict in his doping case.
"If he's allowed to race, he'll be ready," said the Russian.
Menchov himself came under a cloud last year when French sports daily L'Equipe produced its doping suspicion index, in which riders were given a rating of suspicion on a scale from 0 - not suspicious - to 10 - highly suspicious. Menchov was rated at 9.
"Well, it was only L'Equipe's ratings. Both (cycling's governing body) UCI and (the World Anti-Doping Agency) WADA said they had nothing to do with it so I wasn't worried," he said.
"Every year the French come up with some theory to try to explain why no French rider has won the Tour for over 20 years."
The usually quiet Russian has often been criticised for not being aggressive enough, especially on the big climbs.
"In a three-week race like the Tour you must conserve energy as much as possible, especially in the first week, if you want to win the general classification," he said of his tactics.
"One day you may feel great and try an all-out attack to crush your rivals but the next day you could pay a heavy price and suffer badly. In the end, you could lose more than you gain.
"Every rider, except maybe Contador or (Lance) Armstrong in his prime, have their strength and weaknesses. (Andy) Schleck, for example, knows he's not as strong in the time trial so he must attack in the mountains to have a chance," Menchov said.
"As for myself, I usually do well in time trials so in the mountains I can afford to sit back and wait for my chances. You must be patient on the climbs and I've leaned how to pace myself over the years. It comes with experience," he added.
"When I was younger I might have panicked if I was dropped on a big climb. Now I know you can get it back the next day."
On six of his 10 Tours Menchov rode in the colours of Dutch team Rabobank, having joined them from Spain's Banesto in 2004.
When his Rabobank contract expired in 2010, he raised a few eyebrows, preferring newly-formed Geox over Russia's Katusha.
"Ever since Katusha was formed in 2008, there was talk of me joining them but I had a contract with Rabobank," he recalled.
"We had talks with Katusha in 2010 but didn't agree on the contract, so finally when they came calling again at the end of last year I didn't think twice about joining the team."
Katusha boss Hans-Michael Holczer, who joined last year from German team Gerolsteiner, was excited about his new charge.
"In my 10 years with Gerolsteiner we never had a Tour winner so if Menchov wins in my first year with Katusha, I promise to walk all the way from Paris to Moscow," Holczer said.