Sunday, July 02, 2006

Tour Preview

The Tour hasn't even started and we've already had the craziest day in sports this year, and maybe the biggest day in the history of cycling because 58 major players, as well as the top two Tour contenders, have been implicated in a doping scandal and kicked out of the race. I'll discuss this more over the coming weeks but, for now, let's sort out what to think about who's left in the race.

The course:

Each year, the Tour takes a different course around France, usually including a few days in another country. This year's Tour uses an old school profile that features more time trialing, less climbing, and no team time trial. If Armstrong were still in the race, this would suit him against Ivan Basso but not against Jan Ullrich. The lack of a team time trial lessens the advantage of the power teams: Discovery and CSC, meaning a guys like Alejandro Valverde or Iban Mayo don't start the race already having given up a couple of minutes.

This year, the long time trials had made Jan Ullirch a favortie over a pure climber like Basso. I still would have picked Basso based on how he destroyed everyone in the Giro d'Italia. Now they're both gone, along with Francisco Manecebo and a very unlucky Alexander Vinokerov, who was not in a doping scandal but lost his entire team and, hence, cannot participate himself. With last year's top 5 riders not competing, it means the race is completey wide open. There isn't even a minor favortite, much less a clear favorite. Here are the players:

Alejandro Valverde (Spain, Caisse d'Epargne) - This wonderkid is one of the best one-day racers in the world and hasn't even began to flirt with his potential. Vegas has him the odds-on favorite but he's never won a grand tour nor has he finished the Tour de France. He can sprint and climb, a rare combination, but the oddsmakers are setting him up almost purely on potential.

Levi Leipheimer (USA, Gerolsteiner) - The highest finisher from last year left in the race, Leipheimer is a solid rider supported by an excellent team who just won the Dauphane Libre. His form is there but the buzz is that he doesn't quite have the talent or team to stand on the top of the podium. Could be true but there is little doubt he'll be in the mix and has a great chance to move on to the podium.

Floyd Landis (USA, Phonak) - Armstrong's former teammate has already won three stage races this year. With heaps of talent, a great team, and plenty of brashness to handle the pressure, many are touting him as Armstrong's heir apparant.

Cadel Evans (Aussi, Davitamon-Lotto) - A strong finish last year and a solid build up this spring, this former mountain biker (like Landis) can climb and time trial equally well and seems well suited to this year's course. His team, however, might have trouble if forced to control the race.

Paulo Salvodell, George Hincapie, Jose Azevedo, Yaroslav Popovych - Discovery doesn't have Lance but they've got a lot of cards to play. Big George showed he can win in the moutains last year but can he climb in a leader's position? Savoldelli is realistically their best shot, having won the Giro twice. Azevedo and Popovych both have finished high in major tours. It should be interesting and fun to watch them play all these cards.

Wild Cards - The are many many peope that could shake up this race. Denis Mechov finished second in the Vuelta de Espana last year and seems to be improving. Both Damiano Cunego and Giberto Simoni have won the Giro. They seem to lack enough time trialing ability to win here but could make thing very intersting in the mountains. Ditto for Michael Rasmussen, who will probably go for another spotted jersey (the best climber). Iban Mayo hasn't been heard from in two years but a recent win shows he might be on form, something to consider since he's one of the few people who dropped Armstrong in the mountains.

T-Mobile and CSC - With the loss of their leaders, it's hard to imane these powerhouse teams going quietly. T-Mobile has world time trial champion Mick Rogers and Tour podium finisher Andreas Kloden to pick up the slack. If Kloden, who's lacked form the last couple of years, is strong, he should be a favorite.

CSC will look to American Dave Zabriske to grab the yellow during the first time trial. History seems to show he'll lose it in the mountains but if anyone's strong enough to hold the jersey, it's CSC. Bobby Julich may be too old but the race profile suits him. Frank Schleck could also be ready for a breakthrough year as well and Carlos Sastre has proven tough in stage races. Like Discovery, they have a lot of cards to play. Look for some creative strategy from them once the race hits the mountains.

Green Jersey (sprinter) - This is Tom Boonen's to lose but look for Thor Husvold, Robbie McEwen, Eric Zabel and Stuart O'Grady to try and knock the world champion out.

Polka Dot Jersey (mountain) - Depending on who tries for this it could be fantastic. Certainly Rasmussen will try again but if Gibo or Cunego don't fancy their chances for the overall, this could be epic.


Anything can happen, but I've got to choose someone, so:

1. Landis
2. Valverde
3. Salvodelli
4. Leipheimer
5. Evans
6. Sastre
7. Rogers
8. Menchov
9. Hincapie
10. Cunego

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