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  • 2006 Tour de France Preview - Part 1

       June 26, 2006

    Saturday once again brings on the greatest spectacle in sports, the Tour de France. Yeah I know what you’re saying, Lance Armstrong has retired, who cares? Well Armstrong’s retirement promises to bring about the most hotly contested Tour in years, and the racing should be far superior to what you’ve gotten used to during most of the Armstrong era. There are an unprecedented number of riders who have essentially planned their whole seasons around this one race. Simply put, this is the strongest field that has contested a Tour for the past 20 years
    In addition, while this tour will still have all the usual scenery, technology, crashes, and controversy, we will get an added spectacle of a new winner (no, Ullrich will not win again). For those who insist on having an American in contention, there are two who could contend for a high placing and possibly win the race. Tomorrow, I’ll look at the stages and how this wide open race might develop.Today, I’ll go over the race basics, the teams, and the contenders.

    The Race

    This years Tour again consists of 21 stages. Each individual stage is a race unto itself and is considered a major win for any of the riders. There is a prologue time trial, two long individual time trials, three mountaintop finishes, and the rest are road stages varying from flat to mountainous. There are two big differences between this years Tour and recent Tours. First, the team time trial has been eliminated. Second there are only three mountaintop finishes as opposed to four or five in a more typical Tour.

    In addition to having individual stage winners, the Tour awards prizes and jerseys to the best sprinter (the green jersey), the best climber (the polka dot jersey), best young rider(the white jersey), and finally the general classification (GC) also known as the overall (the yellow jersey). The GC winner is the person who has the lowest overall time for the combined 21 stages.

    The Teams and Contenders

    This years tour will be contested by 21 teams of nine riders each. A 22nd team, Communidad Valencia, was uninvited after a doping scandal. As of this writing, the rosters aren’t set yet, but the teams are:

    AG2R Prevoyance
    This is a French team that has attempted to really improve their team this year. They have added both Cristophe Moreau and Francisco Mancebo to their roster this year. Moreau is a very good overall rider who has shown good form this year and should finish in the top ten. If you read last year’s preview, you know Mancebo is my favorite rider. Despite finishing fourth last year, most of the pundits don’t see him as a threat to finish on the podium (the top three), mostly because of the lack of mountain finishes and the presumed emphasis on the time trials. While not a good time triallist, Mancebo can climb with anyone in this Tour, and possibly outclimb some of the other favorites as he did last year. If he has improved his time trialing, or can escape in the mountains, he can win it all. I’m picking him for a podium spot.

    A French team that is in the Tour strictly because they are French. They will do nothing.

    Bouygues Telecom
    Another French team that did nothing last year and will do nothing this year.

    Caisse D’Epargne
    This is the old Banesto team of Miguel Indurain fame. They have lost Francisco Mancebo for this year, but they bring back another contender, Alejandro Valverde. Valverde has already arrived in cycling having picked up a couple of big wins this spring. He can climb with anyone in this Tour, but like Mancebo, the big question is whether or not he can time trial well enough so that he has a realistic amount of time to make up in the mountains. Thus far, I would say the answer is no. Valverde does have two things going for him, though. First, among the contenders for the overall, he is the best sprinter, and the best power climber on the short hills. There are several flat stages that feature short climbs at the end of the stage, and were they one day races, Valverde would be favored. Valverde can possibly make up some time on these stages and collect some time bonuses for the stage win as well. Second, if Valverde can escape in the mountains, it’s possible he could gain enough time on a single stage to make up for his inevitable time trial losses. Valverde will have a strong helper in the mountains in the form of Vladimir Karpets.

    Another French team that is actually a fairly high budget affair. Despite their high budget, they rarely win important races. This race will be no different for them. Look for another underwhelming performance.

    Credit Agricole
    Yet another French team that has one rider, Thor Hushovd that will compete for the green jersey [editor’s note—and for the ladies and non-traditional male fans, he’s one of the best looking riders on the Tour]. Laszlo Bodrogi is an excellent time triallist, but will probably not be given the green light to compete for the time trials, instead being saved to help Hushovd. No one on this team will threaten for the overall.

    This team has the rider everyone is picking to win, Ivan Basso. In addition, this team also has Americans Bobby Julich and David Zabriskie, German Jens Voight and a great Spanish climber, Carlos Sastre. Essentially, they will bring back the same team that did so well last year. This is a powerful team built around helping Basso win the overall. Basso has been magnificent this year, winning the Giro d’Italia, another three week tour, easily. He showed only one weakness, his time trialing. Jan Ullrich beat him easily in a time trial that mattered more to Basso than Ullrich, and that does not bode well. Also, Basso tends to fade in the time trials, and the Tours’ time trials are 4 -5 km longer than the Giro d’Italia’s. Finally, Basso will face 8 – 10 teams, and at least a dozen riders stronger than anything he faced in the Giro. Former winner Bjarne Riis is the director of this team, and I have questioned several of his decisions in recent Tours. If it comes down to a battle of wits between team directors, look for Basso and Riis to lose.

    By all appearances, this team will try to win this Tour by using the formula the old Postal team used to bring Armstrong his Tours. That is, riding hard to discourage attacks, and delivering their man to the bottom of the final climb on each mountain stage at the front of the field. For reasons I will discuss in Part 2, I think that will prove exceptionally difficult.

    Davitamon Lotto
    While this team is best known for sprinter, Robbie McEwen, who will be one of the favorites for the green jersey, they also have the darkest of dark horses for the overall, Australian Cadel Evans. Evans has had great form this year, and is both a good time triallist and an excellent climber. He is simply too good to finish out of the top ten, and with good form could easily be on the podium. With the team focused on winning the sprints, it is doubtful he will get the team support the other contenders will. This, however, could be an asset if it results in Evans rolling the dice in the mountains in an all out aggressive attack. Like several other riders, if he escapes in the mountains, he could win it all.

    Discovery Channel
    Lance Armstrong is gone. That is both a positive and a negative. The negative is that they won’t win the Tour. The positive is that they won’t be expected to do any work, freeing them up to take stages or be opportunistic on the attack. Their director, Johan Bruyneel is a very good tactician who always finds a way to put his riders in position to win if they have the form. I think his riders are outclassed by this field, but I would be surprised if Bruyneel doesn’t pull at least one rabbit out of his hat this year.

    There are two riders who supposedly are leading this team, Yaroslav Popovych and American George Hincapie. Popovych is an excellent overall rider, but it is difficult to see how he could win this Tour. He cannot out time trial the other contenders, and he is not a good enough climber to escape in the mountains. Hincapie supported Armstrong in the past, and is an excellent time trialist, but has never shown the ability to climb with a field of riders like this for three weeks. Featuring him as the team leader may be a concession to the sponsors, or a mind game by Bruyneel to take the pressure off Popovych. I see some possible stage wins for this team, but no threats for the overall.

    Euskaltel Euskadi
    This is a Basque team that I was prepared to write off a couple of weeks ago. After poor showings in the last two Tours, rumor has it that without a good result in this years Tour, they will lose their sponsorship and their place in the Pro Tour. While that outcome is still a distinct possibility, their chances have been greatly enhanced by the sudden reappearance of Iban Mayo as a bike racer. Two years ago Mayo looked capable of running away from everyone in the mountains before suddenly falling off the face of the earth. Earlier this month he came back with a vengeance, looking like the Mayo of old. With a wide open Tour this makes Mayo an instant threat. While Mayo is an average at best time trialist, his ability in the mountains means the other teams will have to mark him constantly. An escape by Mayo early on a mountain stage with multiple peaks would lead to a panic among the other contenders, and we could see some great racing and spectacular failures on the part of some of them. This team also has Haimar Zubeldia, who could finish in the top ten but really shouldn’t threaten.

    Francais des Jeux
    Another French team. Unlike some of the other French teams, they tend to overachieve. They will not threaten for the overall, but could take a stage.

    American contender, Levi Leipheimer will lead this team. Last year he did much better than I expected, and this year his form has been better still. He is both an excellent time triallist and climber, and any weakness by Basso or Ullrich will put Leipheimer on the podium, and possibly in the yellow jersey. Leipheimer’s only real weakness has been an inability to attack in the mountains. Thus far in the Tour he has been strictly a follower when the road goes uphill. The best scenario for Leipheimer is probably a conservative race where he can gain large amounts of time in the time trials and hold on in the mountains. I don’t think this will be sufficient to win this year, though, as I think a conservative race is a long shot.

    Lampre Fondital
    This is the team of former Giro d’Italia winner Damiano Cunego. Cunego is an excellent rider, but this is his first Tour, and I think he will find the faster pace and longer stages of the Tour difficult. This will strictly be a learning experience for Cunego.

    Most of the riders on any team are primarily workers who rarely get a chance to ride for themselves. Lampre has the ultimate workhorse (and excellent time trialist) in Marzio Bruseghin. If Bruseghin escapes in a breakaway on one of the flat stages and has a chance to win, you are obliged to root for him

    This team will do nothing [editor’s note – except provide the commentators hours of fun by calling them “Leaky Gas”].

    A new team that features sprinters Eric Zabel and Alessandro Petacchi. Both have seen better days.

    The biggest American threat for the Tour overall will be Floyd Landis. Landis is a threat to win any of the time trails or mountain stages. As such, anything but a podium finish would be a disappointment. Landis’ ability in the time trials means he will probably be able to ride defensively in the mountains, even against Basso and Ullrich. Like several other riders, it will take a massive effort by someone in the mountains to leave him out of contention. Look for Landis to establish himself early in the tour, if he does this, he could be the new boss to replace Armstrong.

    Quick Step
    The great one day racer and sprinter Tom Boonen [editor-my favorite sprinter] will be favored to take several stages and possibly the green jersey if he can get through the mountains. There have been rumors that Boonen may eventually try to become a GC rider, but that is at best a couple of years away.

    Last years Tour revelation Michael ”The Chicken” Rasmussen [editor-my favorite rider] and last years Vuelta Espana winner Denis Menchov make this a very interesting team. Menchov is another rider who is just too good overall to not finish high in the standings unless he is riding in support of Rasmussen. For Rasmussen, there is good news and bad news. The bad news is everyone knows who he is, so he will not be allowed the breakaway that led to his big time gain last year. Any time he gains in the mountains this year will be very hard earned. The good news is that one, the team time trial is gone, and two, there is no conceivable way he can have as bad a time trial as the disaster that closed out his tour last year.

    As an aside, Rasmussen has been focusing on his time trialing, resulting in a rather strange looking position where his aero bars are pointed up at an angle. For him, having very long legs, this is supposedly a more aerodynamic position that still allows him to generate maximum power. When you’re watching the time trials his position should contrast sharply with the flat aero bars run by virtually all the other riders.

    Saunier Duval
    This team animated what would have been an otherwise horribly boring Giro d’Italia. Gilberto Simoni will probably lead the team, but the rider to watch will be little Leonardo Piepoli. He has had good form this year, and as he will not contend for the overall, he could take a mountain stage or two on a long breakaway. Oh, Simoni has no chance whatsoever against this field.

    Jan Ullrich heads up this strong team once again, and there is really nothing new to say about him. He is still the best time triallist in the world, but one whose overall fitness is highly suspect. He has two chances of winning: First, he could have far better form in the mountains than he has had in recent years. Second, the race could be very conservative where he gains a great deal of time over his rivals in the time trials, and then limits his losses in the mountains. I don’t believe either of these scenarios is likely. This team also has Andreas Kloden, and he tends to alternate good years with bad. This year would be the good year, so he could surprise.

    Liberty Seguros dropped their sponsorship of this team over a doping scandal, but they will nevertheless still be riding the Tour. I have mixed feelings about this. I like some of their riders, but I think that in principle, the Tour should exclude any team suspected of doping.

    Their leader will be Alexandre Vinokourov, the most aggressive rider in the race among the contenders. A win by Vino would be popular, and this year may be his best chance. He has planned his whole season around this race, and will be bitterly disappointed if he does not do well. Although good at both climbing and time trialling, Vinokourov’s plan for winning is simple: he will attack whenever he feels like it [editor-which is why we love him-he’s the Phil Mickelson of cycling]. With a wide open tour, that strategy may work.

    So that’s the field. Tomorrow I’ll take a look at the race and how it should all shake out.

    Read Part 2 of the 2006 Tour de France Preview now.

    Posted by BVBigBro at June 26, 2006 09:24 AM

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    #  June 26th, 2006 9:50 AM      kris
    how assy is this intro on the English version of the Tour's official site?

    On the 24th of July we turned the page on a long, very long chapter in the history of the Tour de France. And one month later, current events made it clear to us that it was just as well that this was so.

    Gee, who/what in the world could they be talking about?

    The thing is, even if Armstrong is a big, fat cheater, it's not like he's the only one. They're probably ALL doping. No Armstrong certainly doesn't mean no cheating. All it means is that there won't be an American kicking their asses around again.  



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