2008 Tour de France Preview – Part 1 or Politics in an Election Year
It’s an election year in the USA, but for cycling the politics is taking place overseas. While the Tour de France ought to be a spectacle unmatched in sports, in 2008 a great deal of the spectacle will take place on the sidelines. The spectacle is the politics of doping and what penalties should be enacted on riders who dope, the teams that employ them and the directors who pressure them to dope.
The 2008 Tour de France is witnessing the inevitable showdown between the UCI, which purports to govern cycling, and the ASO which runs the Tour de France and several of cycling’s other big races. This showdown has been coming for some time and became inevitable after last years’ Tour de France when the UCI withheld information from the ASO regarding Michael Rasmussen missing doping checks; information that would have resulted in the ASO preventing Rasmussen from starting the race. The Tour was harmed by the revelations on Rasmussen during the Tour last year, and they probably believe the UCI acted with the full intent on harming the Tour.
While the UCI may have won that battle in the end it only points out the total uselessness of the UCI in dealing with doping. The UCI, which represents the teams and riders, has taken a weak stance on doping. They are implementing a year round biological passport which would establish baseline measurements for riders’ blood and while this is a good idea, they have not implemented any harsh penalties for the riders or any penalties at all for the teams and team managers for violations of this policy. The lack of real penalties is standard procedure for the UCI. The ASO has taken the position of kicking out riders and teams based on their past and present activities regardless of whether or not the UCI has granted them permission to ride major events.
In 2008 the ASO’s target has been the Astana team. In 2007 multiple Astana riders were involved in doping scandals and the team’s performance in the Tour, probably enhanced, was an embarrassment. In spite of 2007, the UCI granted Astana a pro tour license and as a pro tour team insists that the ASO allow them to compete in the ASO’s events. The ASO has said no.
It is difficult to see how the UCI has any chance of winning this fight. To paraphrase George Costanza, they have no hand. The ASO controls the biggest purse in cycling and has the largest TV exposure (important to sponsors). The only question is how badly the UCI wants to lose. If they give up the struggle now they can have input into future drug testing and remain the organization that establishes most of the racing criteria. They will lose the ability to dictate which teams ride which races and what the penalties are for doping. If they continue the fight they will lose any input into the ASO’s races and as the ASO expands the UCI will fade into irrelevance. Much like the last two year’s, the 2008 Tour takes place in the shadow of a larger political battle, and in the still larger shadow of the ongoing fight against doping.
But enough of the politics, let’s talk about the race. Today we’ll look at the teams and contenders.
This year’s Tour consists of the usual 21 stages. Gone is the short prologue time trial. Instead the Tour will have one long time trial, one medium distance time trial, ten fairly flat stages, four transitional stages featuring some climbing, and five stages in the mountains.
The usual prizes will be awarded: the green jersey for the best sprinter, the polka dot jersey for the best climber, the white jersey for the best young rider, and the yellow jersey for the rider with the lowest overall time. The prizes will be contested by 20 teams of nine riders each. The rosters for the race are not all set, but the teams that will compete are:
AG2R La Mondiale
Once the team of Francisco Mancebo and Cristophe Moreau, this French team has seen better days. This year they look weak, but Tadej Valjevec is good enough to get a top ten finish in the overall. AG2R is traditionally competitive, so look for them to steal a stage somewhere, possibly with Vladimir Efimkin.
Crisophe Moreau now rides for this team. Moreau is too old and has not shown any form this year, so expect little from them.
Robbie Hunter stole his stage last year, and he is threat to win stages again. Mauricio Soler is a great climber who will compete for the polka dot jersey and may wind up high in the general classification if he is allowed to break free in the mountains. Soler has never shown anything as a time trialer, though, so it would take a mammoth effort in the mountains for him to wind up on the podium.
This is a team that will try to get a stage by getting someone into every breakaway, but otherwise they will do nothing.
The first of the powerhouse teams is Caisse d’Epargne. They will bring 2006 champ Oscar Pereiro and one of this year’s favorites, Alejandro Valverde. Pereiro gained his Tour win courtesy of a long breakaway that was allowed to run wild. That won’t happen this year, but even so Pereiro is still a good enough rider to wind up in the top ten. Valverde is one of the popular picks to win it all. Valverde has shown that he can climb, and his prowess in one day races means teams here will have to defend against him on the transitional stages where he could get away on a hill climb and gain a few seconds. The keys to Valverde’s success, though, will be staying upright on the bike and his time trialling. Valverde will need to avoid the crashes that occur on the hotly contested flat and transitional stages and he will have to minimize his losses in the time trials, where he is weak. If the time trialers bury him in the first time trial he will have an unrealistic amount of time to make up heading into the mountains. On the positive side, there is less time trialling this year, and with the final time trial occurring on stage 20, Valverde will be have to be aggressive in the last of the mountain stages if he is to gain enough time to survive. Valverde is at his best when he is aggressive, and aggression at the Tour often reveals weakness in one’s opposition. Look for Valverde to be on the podium.
The perennially underachieving team will maintain that tradition.
Columbia / High Road
This team is the remnant of the former T Mobile team. George Hincapie captains them, but their best chance for the overall is Kim Kicrchen. Kirchen is not good enough to win it all, but this is a team of competitors looking to make a good impression for their new sponsor so expect at least one stage win and a possibly a top ten for Kim. If Michael Rogers were healthy and riding I’d pick him as my darkhorse, but it is not to be.
Thor Hushovd will once again contend for the green jersey. This team is built around him and the fight for the sprints, so the green jersey is well within their grasp. There is no one here who should contend for the general classification.
CSC is another powerhouse team managed by Bjarne Riis. Carlos Sastre is CSC’s best rider, and named by many as a Tour favorite. I don’t see it happening, though. Sastre can climb with anybody in this Tour, but he is a poor time trialer and as a climber does not have a particularly attacking style. It will be very difficult for Sastre to get a lead he can hold though the final time trial. Worse, Bjarne Riis has never been the type to build a team around a single rider for the Tour, so the support Sastre gets from his team will be highly conditional. This team is also likely to bring along Frank and Andy Schleck, Fabian Cancellara, Stuart O’Grady, Jens Voight, etc. These are all excellent riders who can contend for stage wins, and while this will put CSC at the fore of many stages it will not be to the benefit of Carlos Sastre’s quest for the overall.
On paper Haimar Zubeldia will once again be the Basque team’s man for the Tour. Zubeldia, when healthy, is a threat for a high finish, but as usual his poor time trialling will be his undoing. The real man to watch, though, will be Samuel Sanchez. Sanchez is in many ways a poor mans’ Valverde who has been on the podium of a grand tour already. With a lot of the old guard gone from past years’ Tours, Sanchez could easily find himself in the top ten and grab a stage.
Francais de Jeux
Philippe Gilbert is a solid rider who should threaten on some of the flat or transitional road stages. There is no threat on this team for the overall.
On paper this is once again a weak team. They will, however, bring Fabian Wegmann to the Tour and he could take a mountain stage on a breakaway. Markus Fothen once fought for the white jersey a few years ago, and we’ll watch to see if he has improved at all.
Damiano Cunego is also being hailed as a contender for the Tour, but I think this is a stretch. Cunego won the Giro d’Italia several years ago in spectacular fashion but has since done little and has never shown anything at the Tour. Cunego can climb, but he is not particularly good in the time trials and he would have to be in better form than he has ever shown even to wind up on the podium. Perennial workhorse Marzio Bruseghin will pace him and will also contest the time trials. I like riders like Bruseghin who do much work for little reward and so expect some cheerleading from me if he gets a shot at a stage win.
Who the hell is Roman Kreuziger? He won the Tour de Suisse last month including an impressive win in a mountain time trial. That alone marks him as a man to be watched. A Tour winner from out of the blue would be a shocker, but stranger things have happened. If the race gets defensive and tentative as it may, someone like Kreuziger who can attack in the mountains could find themselves on the podium. Daniele Bennati will miss the Tour and will not contest the sprints so Liquigas will be free to support Kreuziger. This looks to be a much improved unit from last year.
Milram will bring the old man Erik Zabel to contest the sprints. Zabel may have the experience to steal one final stage at the Tour, but it’s more likely this team will go home empty handed.
Tom Boonen was supposed to lead this team but he decided to go on a cocaine binge and will instead watch the Tour on TV (editor's note - and with him goes about 75% of the pretty). In his absence Quickstep will try to get Stijn Devolder a high placing and maybe a stage win. This is a powerful team built for sprint finishes, so they may also be able get a win for Gert Steegmans in a flat stage.
Rabobank is another powerhouse that will bring Oscar Freire for the sprints and tour Favorite Denis Menchov for the overall. I think Menchov’s chances at the Tour are underestimated. There are a lot of relatively poor time trialers at the Tour who can climb. Menchov is a very good time trialer who can climb. While others fade away, the time he saves in the time trials will keep him close. If Menchov can find a way to attack in the mountains, or if he can do so much as stay with lead group of climbers he can win the Tour. With his time trialling skills he is likely to be in contention all the way to Paris. Freire is one of the premier sprinters so he should be able to get a least a stage win.
Saunier Duval will not contend for the overall but they will bring two very strong climbers in Riccardo Ricco and Leonardo Piepoli. Both men are threats to take any of the mountain stages so Saunier Duval should not go away empty handed. If either Ricco or Piepoli string together two good mountain stages they could wind up with someone in the top ten overall. On a side note, at all of 110 pounds little Leonardo Piepoli will likely be the smallest rider at the Tour. Gravity is his friend.
Australia’s Cadel Evans, my former darkhorse, is now the heavy favorite for this year’s tour. It’s easy to see why. Evans is a substantially better time trialer than all of the other contenders save Menchov and can climb with any of them, although his ability to attack in the mountains may be limited. He has also shown he knows how to keep the bike upright for three consecutive weeks; an overlooked skill in the grand tours where many riders abandon from crashes. For Evans to lose he must either fail unexpectedly, crash or fall victim to an epic mountain breakaway. The latter might be possible given that this team will also be trying to support Robbie McEwen in the race for the green sprinters’ jersey. In the past teams have tried and failed in the attempt to achieve different objectives, and it might be better if Silence Lotto were to focus strictly on helping Evans and on chasing breakaways that threaten him. Evans will have an excellent support rider in the mountains with Yaroslav Popovych helping him. Evans is the man to beat and my pick to win.
Slipstream Chipotle (I believe this team is now called Garmin Chipotle due to Garmin's recent sponsorship deal)
This is a new team that due to injuries will bring a relatively weak team to the Tour. They will not contend for the overall, but with David Millar they have an excellent shot at winning one of the time trials and Magnus Backstedt is a very good one day racer who will challenge for some of the road stages. (Editor's note - I'm really bummed about Dave Zabriskie getting hurt - he could have had them in the yellow jersey for a couple of days. Also of note is that Garmin Chipotle is the leading anti-doping teams. Fans should root for them.).
That’s the field. Tomorrow we’ll look at the stages and try to figure out how this race will shake out.
Posted by BVBigBro at July 1, 2008 08:39 AM
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|# July 1st, 2008 11:22 AM kris|
|Without any of the big, exciting names from past Tours around, this seems like it might be a yawner. However, I think the route this year seems really challenging and fascinating. So what it really is is a test of whether the Tour is bigger than the star riders - in other words - does the Tour make the stars or is it the other way around? |
|# July 1st, 2008 12:13 PM BVBigBro|
|The Tour makes the stars. One of the best things about this years Tour is that it is very likely that at least one unheralded rider will find themselves high up the general classification. |