2006 Tour de France Preview - Part 2
Yesterday we looked at the race basics, the field and the contenders for the general classification (GC). Today we will look at the stages, tactics, and how the race might unfold. I emphasize the word might. With Armstrong retired, there a number of ways this race could develop, and how this race is run will go a long way towards determining the winner. The stages consist of a short prologue time trial, two individual time trials, three mountain top finishes, two additional mountain stages, nine fairly flat road stages and four transitional stages that have significant climbs but avoid the true mountains. Traditionally, the GC is decided in the time trials and the mountains, but this year there will be opportunities elsewhere as well. The sprinters will contend for the flat stages, and the breakaway artists will try their legs out on the transitional stages and on some of the long flat stages that occur between the mountain stages.
The race starts with the prologue; a 7.1 km individual time trial. This short time trial is flat, but has several sharp turns. Although it is the first chance for the riders contending for the overall to take time from each other, it is short enough, and technical enough, that the time gaps will only be measured in a few seconds.
Stage one is a flat stage that will begin the sprinter’s contest for the green jersey. Look for Boonen, Hushovd or McEwen to win.
Stages two and three would normally also be sprinter’s stages, but this year we are likely to see something different. Stage two is a very long stage with a couple of category three climbs that will see an early breakaway go out to a lead. After this there is long flat section where the breakaway will get a big lead, and then lose it. Finally, there are a couple of short, steep climbs in the final 20 km before the finish. The end of the stage should see the first fireworks of the Tour. The short climbs at the end set up well for someone like Valverde or Vinokourov to escape and grab a stage win. The other teams know this, though, and will try to mark them closely as they approach the final climbs. This in turn will result in a lot of riders in a limited amount of space all trying to get to the front. Crashes are entirely possible. Look for Valverde to get clear and steal a stage win and a time bonus.
Stage three is another long stage with six short categorized climbs in the final 80 km. Once again, one of the GC favorites like Cadel Evans or Vino could be off the front trying to steal a stage. Look for this stage to see a very fast pace for the last 110 km as attacks are chased or discouraged, and as a result, a split in the field for what would otherwise be an easy stage.
The sprinters couldn’t get free in stages two and three, but they’ll be up to their old tricks in stages four, five and six. These three flat stages should all see sprint finishes and a favorite for the green jersey emerge.
Stage seven is a 52 km individual time trial (TT), a key stage for the overall. Ullrich will be the favorite, but someone else, like David Zabriskie or Floyd Landis could take this stage. For Ullrich, he must take time out of his rivals on this stage to stand a chance at winning. For the other good TT riders among the contenders like Landis, Hincapie and Leipheimer they will want to take as much time as possible from the climbers while keeping Ullrich in sight. For the climbers, like Mancebo, Mayo and Valverde they know they will lose time, especially to Ullrich, but they will want to limit their losses to the other GC contenders who are probably more of a threat to them in the mountains. The key people to watch on this stage will be Evans, Vinokourov and Michael “The Chicken” Rasmussen. Vino, and especially Evans are both capable of an unexpectedly strong time trial and any such result would stamp them as an early favorite. For Rasmussen, this stage will be the test to see if he has improved his time trial. If he can stay within 2:30, he will be very happy. I think Landis is going to put his stamp on the Tour on this stage.
Stages eight and nine return to the flats with a rest day between the stages, and we should see two more sprint finishes.
Stage ten sees both an Hors Categorie (HC) and a Cat 1 climb, but they are both in the middle of the stage. The field will be split up by the climbs, but the GC contenders are unlikely to lose any time to each other. With a 35 km descent and flat run to the finish, Valverde could grab another stage win if the sprinters are dropped on the climbs as they likely will be.
Stage 11 starts the real Tour. The stage features an HC climb and four Cat 1 climbs with a mountaintop finish on the Puerto de Beret. The climbers will need to do well on this stage, and with all the peaks this stage will likely see an all day breakaway with some of the GC contenders possibly involved. If everyone waits until the final stage to attack, we will likely see a conservative Tour. If there is an early attack by one or more of the GC contenders, we will witness a free for all. If this occurs, any weakness on the part of any of the GC riders will see them dropped and they will lose several minutes to the other contenders.
Stages twelve and thirteen give a break to the riders as the first is a transitional stage likely to finish in a sprint. The second is a brutally long rolling stage that will go to someone who can get over the Cat 4 climb near the end and then negotiate the descent to the finish.
Stage fourteen is an interesting transitional stage with two Cat 2 climbs and a 10 km descent to the finish. Logically this stage should go to a long breakaway, but among the contenders we may see some attacks on the final climb followed by a fast run to the finish to maintain any gaps that have been created by attacks on the final climb.
After a rest day, the Tour heads back into the mountains for stage fifteen. This stage features the HC Col d’Izoard, then the Cat 2 Col du Lautaret, and finally the famed HC L’Alpe d’Huez. This should be a great stage with the climbers going all out for a chance at glory and with everyone else hanging on for dear life. Look for Mayo to maybe get clear and get a big stage win. Another possibility is that one or more of the contenders will be eliminated by this stage and we will see someone like Moreau, Hincapie or Rasmussen win after a long breakaway.
Stage sixteen is another mountain stage crossing the monstrous HC Galibier, the highest point of the Tour, then the HC Col de la Croix de Fer, then a Cat 2 climb and finally a Cat 1 climb to the finish at La Toussuire. This is another brutal mountain stage that will eliminate all but the strongest. Once again, an early attack by a GC contender could leave the field in a shambles, or we could witness a truce of sorts with everyone waiting for the final climb to attack. The long 18+ km final climb might favor someone like Mancebo who can grind out a big gear all the way to the top.
Stage seventeen sees the end of the mountains with another long, brutal mountain stage crossing a Ct 2, a Cat 3, two Cat 1 climbs and finally a downhill finish 11 km after climbing the HC Col de Joux-Plane. This stage favors a long breakaway, so we will likely see two races; one for the stage win, and one between the GC contenders who by this time will be few in number and closely marking each other.
Stage eighteen is a flat stage that should go to one of the sprinters who has survived the Alps.
Stage nineteen is the final time trial. It is a narrow, rolling, climbing and descending 57 km beast that represents a last shot at victory for someone. The usual time trial suspects will be favored to win, but the all the little accelerations required might see someone like Vinokourov or even Valverde do unexpectedly well. At the end of this stage, we will know who the winner is.
Stage twenty is the traditonal flat stage into Paris ending with eight laps on the Champs Elysees. It is a prestigious stage that all the surviving sprinters will contest. Occasionally, if the GC battle is still very close, a contender will attempt to breakaway on the Champs Elysees and collect some time bonuses and possibly a stage win and victory. They never succeed, though.
So how will this race go and who will win? This is a wide open race with a least a dozen serious contenders. As usual, the number and quality of the mountains, the level of the competition and the sheer length of the race will ensure that no one displaying any lack of fitness will win. The key, though, will be how aggressive the race becomes.
Over the past several years we became accustomed to seeing the race unfold according to a predictable formula: the team time trial put Armstrong in the lead and the riders from smaller teams in a hole, the first time trial solidified his lead, and everyone waited until the final climb on the mountain stages to attack. There Armstrong could attack or defend as the situation required knowing he had a significant lead. This led to seven Armstrong wins. This wasn’t accidental. After his win in 2000 Armstrong was firmly established as the Boss. His team raced solely to support his bid for the GC win, they excelled at the team time trial, and Armstrong delivered the goods in the mountains. His competition obliged by not attacking without approval, and unapproved attacks were quickly punished by Armstrong; the exception being Pantani in the aforementioned 2000 Tour. Also, no rider goes three weeks without having some bad days. Once he was established as the Boss, Armstrong was able to bluff his way through the days when he wasn’t in top form with nobody willing to test him. This formula, though, was actually very risky. It was entirely possible that the team could do a days’ worth of work to discourage attacks, chase down all the breakaways and then find out Armstrong was not the strongest. This would have left the team with nothing to show for a huge effort.
This year, it appears that the CSC or T-Mobile teams will attempt to duplicate this formula to obtain a win for Ivan Basso or Jan Ullrich. As I said yesterday, I think this will prove exceptionally difficult. First, there is no team time trial, thus many riders who would previously enter the mountains with a huge time gap will be much closer to the lead. Second, neither Basso nor Ullrich is the Tour Boss. This year we have no Boss. Basso has never won the Tour and is likely to enter the mountains with a time deficit to several of the other contenders, and Ullrich won nine Tours ago. Worse, Ullrich has shown weakness in the mountains in recent years. In short, no one will give any respect to these two, it will have to be earned. With no Boss, and with lots of aggressive riders in the race, there ought to be constant attacks that test everyone’s level of fitness. With the three week nature of the event an aggressive race means that sooner or later Basso and Ullrich should both have at least one bad day that will be revealed by the constant attacks. For Basso or Ullrich to win they will have to be outstanding, and if they do win they will be deservedly called the greatest racer in the world.
A third factor to consider is that with Armstrong retired lots of riders consider this year to be their best shot at victory. Guys like Mancebo, Vinokourov, Moreau, Leipheimer and Mayo know it is now or never. Expect at least one of these guys to dig deep and reach new heights.
Finally, there are some riders like Rasmussen, Valverde and Evans who are still developing. It is entirely possible that one of these guys will show their future form and become the new Armstrong.
As for me I’m picking Floyd Landis to win. I think he can out climb Ullrich and out time trial Basso, Valverde and Mancebo. I think he will establish himself in the first time trial, and be able to join any breakaways that happen in the Pyrenees. By the time the race reaches the Alps he should be able to pick and choose his efforts knowing he has the final time trial to gain back some time on the climbers. Besides, I need a reason to pick someone and Landis’ favorite ride includes a stretch of old Highway 395 that I used to ride. As unpredictable as this Tour is, that’s as good a reason as any to pick a winner. The biggest threat to him is probably an epic breakaway in the mountains by someone like Mayo or Evans. This epic breakaway may seem unlikely, but remember that prior to Armstrong at least one such breakaway per tour was the norm. I will, of course, root for Mancebo to finally make that pained look on his face a look of triumph.
Anyways, enjoy the Tour, root for some aggressive, fun racing regardless of the rider, and I’ll post a couple of updates as the race warrants.
UPDATE: The Tour has requested that the Wurth team withdraw from the race due to their ongoing doping scandal. This would eliminate Vinokourov from the race [editor’s note: NO!!!!!!!!!!!].
Posted by BVBigBro at June 27, 2006 08:25 AM
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|# June 27th, 2006 8:30 AM kris|
|You seem to think that there IS going to be an epic breakaway this year, so why pick Landis? He's not a guy who's going to win on a breakaway, is he? If you think someone's going to do something big--then I think you've gotten pick a Mancebo, Mayo, Valverde, Rasmussen or Basso. |
|# June 27th, 2006 8:33 AM BVBigBro|
|I think there will be multiple selections in the mountains. Landis is an excellent climber who will stay close enough to win.
Valverde is the most intriguing rider, but he has just never shown any kind of form in long time trials. He is entirely capable of losing 8-10 minutes to Landis in the time trials. I have a hard time picking him on potential.
With all the people who are preparing just for this race, someone is bound to emerge with a far better performance then they have ever shown before. I think Landis has the best chance of that.
|# June 30th, 2006 8:07 AM jagorham|
|Sounds like it just got really interesting, given all the big names that have suddenly been banned. |
|# June 30th, 2006 8:22 AM BVBigBro|
|This is excellent news. With the UCI committed to doing nothing, the Tour has taken matters into their own hands. I appluad their effort and hope it succeeds. Not only that, but a prediction I made actually came true.
A lot more contenders now, you have to add Simoni and maybe even Garzelli to the mix.
I was out of town yesterday, but I'll do an update post today.