By Julien Pretot
BERGERAC France (Reuters) - After almost three weeks of action-packed racing the minor podium places in the Tour de France are likely to be decided in Saturday's final time trial.
The 54-km solo effort against the clock between Bergerac and Perigueux should be won by German Tony Martin, triple world champion in the discipline, but most eyes will be on a couple of Frenchmen and Spain's Alejandro Valverde.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali is expected to wrap up the Tour title as he leads Thibaut Pinot by 7:10 - a virtually unassailable lead if the Astana rider avoids crashes on a straightforward course.
"There are no risks to be taken but I will honor the yellow jersey, the Tour, my team mates and ride it like a leader," Nibali told reporters.
Pinot, who is not a time trial specialist but has dramatically improved in the discipline this season, holds a 13-second lead over compatriot Jean-Christophe Peraud while Valverde lies fourth overall, two seconds further back.
French FDJ.fr rider Pinot could drop to fourth while Peraud and Valverde, who both have national time trial titles, may be battling for second.
"Pinot has really improved a lot in time trials. Many will be surprised," Andy Flickinger, a sports director at French rival team Europcar, told Reuters.
FDJ.fr sports director Yvon Madiot also told Reuters: "He's as fresh as them. He was one of the easiest in the climb (to Hautacam in the last mountain stage on Thursday).
"He spent a lot of time in the wind tunnel, a lot of time on his time trial bike at home. I know that he has been doing time trial simulations.
"Maybe we're going to be disappointed tomorrow but I believe he will do it."
There are no categorized climbs on the course but it does feature a few bumps - which will suit Pinot, Valverde and Peraud.
Valverde's Movistar team manager Eusebio Unzue is hopeful his protege will secure a podium finish in Paris.
"I'm very confident for Alejandro. I know it is not going to be easy, Jean-Christophe is also a time trial specialist," said the Spaniard.
"Pinot, given his form, should do a good time trial but I'm very confident."
Questions were raised over Valverde's form as the 35-year-old appeared to struggle in the Pyrenees but Unzue dismissed them.
"Physically Alejandro's there. He's been good. It's just that on this Tour he has been less of a climber than the others but he lost only a few seconds," he said.
"The reality is that the general classification reflects the regularity of the riders and today the reality is that there are 15 seconds between the second and the fourth-placed rider."
A final grand tour time trial is decided at least as much on freshness than skills after three weeks of demanding racing.
"It's a very important time trial. I will need to have good legs to be on the podium," said Pinot.
Peraud, who crashed in the finale of Friday's 19th stage but said he was fine, has been inconsistent in time trials this season and although he may be the strongest of the trio, he knows all too well that nothing should be taken for granted.
Last year the AG2R-La Mondiale rider crashed in the final time trial between Embrun and Chorges.
"We're going to check it in a car to know what to expect," the 37-year-old said. "And then rest."
(Editing by Tony Goodson)