July 21, 2008
2008 Tour de France Update #3
|[Posted by BVBigBro]|
It’s do or die time now at the Tour de France. Tuesday and Wednesday in the Alps are the last chances for the riders to gain significant time on each other prior to Saturday’s time trial. Because the time trial results will be fairly predictable, we know what each team and rider needs to do prior to then.
Team CSC and rider Frank Schleck now are in Yellow. Carlos Sastre is also only 49 seconds back of Schleck. Schleck got killed in the first time trial and if those results are extrapolated to the 53km of the final time trial he will lose another 4:01 to Cadel Evans and 3:48 to Menchov. Sastre can expect to lose 3:06 to Evans and 2:53 to Menchov. If CSC wants a winner they need to do something dramatic in the next two days and I think that means tomorrow’s Stage 16.
Stage 16 has two HC climbs in quick succession and I think it would be good tactics to throw caution to the wind and attack on the first climb with either Sastre or Frank Schleck. CSC isn’t going to crack both Menchov and Evans by traditional “wait until the last climb” means. Watching Stage 15 it was evident the Denis Menchov is probably the best climber of the contenders and that he is fully capable of attacking Evans in the mountains and getting the time he needs to hold out through the final time trial. Had he not fallen on yesterday’s stage he would now be in yellow and the favorite for the overall. If CSC waits until L’Alpe-D’Huez or the final climb tomorrow to attack they will find they are simply dragging Denis Menchov to victory.
For Cadel Evans, yesterday’s stage revealed that he is strong enough to resist CSC’s attacks, but that he needs to keep Denis Menchov close enough to force a showdown in the final time trial. I expect Menchov will attack either the final climb tomorrow or L’Alpe-D’Huez or both in order to put time between himself and Evans before the final time trial. Neither Evans nor Menchov has a team that has shown anything in the mountains, so it will likely come down to a one on one battle between them on the final climbs.
Because neither Silence Lotto (Evans) nor Rabobank (Menchov) have shown well in the mountains it would be good tactics for them to find some allies besides each other in the fight against CSC. The logical choice here is the Basque team, Euskaltel. Euskaltel has the climbers needed to chase attacks in the mountains, wanted a stage win yesterday and failed to get it. In addition their leading rider, Sammy Sanchez, is far enough back that he poses no real threat to the overall unless he gets about 7 minutes. Sanchez is also an excellent descender which could prove useful tomorrow. An alliance could be formed getting Euskaltel a stage win in return for keeping CSC close over the next two days. Alternately CSC could ally themselves with Euskaltel to assist an epic attack by one of CSC’s riders in return for an Euskaltel stage win. Because they are in Yellow, CSC may be better positioned to offer deals.
For Garmin Chipotle, American Christian Vande Velde has held on bravely. He can substantially out time trial Sastre and Schleck and surprise contender Bernhard Kohl, so if he can simply hang on the next two days he should find himself on the podium after the final time trial. This would be an excellent result for the team in their first Tour appearance.
Through some good climbing Berhard Kohl of team Gerolsteiner has also launched himself into contention. Kohl was also killed in the first time trial and he can expect to lose another 3:12 in the final time trial. Kohl needs to attack if he can to gain some time, but realistically I don’t see him dropping both Evans and Menchov. A more realistic result would be for him to drop Vande Velde and turn in a good enough time trial to finish on the podium. The podium would be an excellent result for Gerolsteiner.
The next two days should be nail biters. CSC needs to pull a rabbit out of the hat in order to win, and if they do it will be both fun to watch and well deserved. Denis Menchov and Cadel Evans have both looked like strong men. If they can hold on we can tip our hats to the strongest man after one emerges victorious in the final time trial. If Christian Vande Velde continues to hold on we’ll have a good American result, a good result for Garmin/Chipotle and perhaps a concrete example of how a clean team can win races. In any event tune in for the next two days and then wait until Saturday mornings time trial, when you can wake up late, grab a cup of coffee and watch the race of truth determine a winner.
July 18, 2008
2008 Tour de France Update #2
|[Posted by BVBigBro]|
After two weeks the biggest story at the Tour de France is once again a doping scandal. This time it is the Saunier Duval team and Ricardo Ricco. Both have departed the Tour, probably forever, and that is entirely proper. From the tough talk after the positive test it is clear that the ASO, which owns the Tour, is going to hold the teams, directors and team doctors responsible for their riders’ behavior. This is also proper. This year has clearly shown that the rewards for cheating still outweigh the penalties for cheating and thus cheats remain prevalent. That is now coming to an end. Not only does the Tour appear prepared to kick out teams and riders wholesale, but they were also able to detect a doping drug that only became available this year. The swift penalties and unexpected ability to detect new drugs should achieve a clean Tour fairly quickly. The only thing left is to expand the scope of the testing to all of the riders and to include more testing throughout the year.
To that end, the last roadblock to the ASO getting its’ way regarding doping was removed when the UCI learned this week that the professional teams that currently make up its’ pro tour will not be participating next year. There will undoubtedly be a new series of races next season requiring conformance with the ASO’s doping standards for participation. This should allow the ASO to enforce real testing standards throughout the season.
Don’t be too put off by cycling right now. Cycling leads the way among professional sports in attempting to put on a show that has not been chemically enhanced. The last few years have been tough, but the foundation has now been laid for a new era of sportsmanship in cycling. It’s now up to the riders and teams to build on that foundation.
If the latest doping scandal has removed all interest for you, then that’s a shame. Outside of the doping we’ve seen some good racing for once by team CSC. CSC finally employed some sound tactics by sending Frank Schleck up the road on the attack in the mountains. That, combined with Cadel Evans and Denis Menchov’s unwillingness to drag Carlos Sastre in pursuit allowed Schleck to be one second off the lead of Evans with Sastre still close enough to strike. CSC now has two men who can realistically contend and that will allow them to try the same tactic again in the Alps. The only downside was the team did a lot of work by itself on the stage in order to drop Alejandro Valverde, a worthy goal, but one that helped everyone, not just CSC. Unfortunately since then we’ve also seen CSC use a lot of energy putting people in breaks in attempts to get stage wins. Stage wins are nice, but they detract from Schleck and Sastre’s race for the overall.
Christian Vande Velde has also put in a nice race that has kept him in the fight for a podium spot, but I suspect he will find the attacks in the Alps difficult to follow. I hope he finds a way to hold out as it would be good both for American cycling and for his Garmin/Chipotle/Slipstream team. Denis Menchov remains the man Cadel Evans should fear the most. Menchov can climb with Evans and will be the only contender who can match Evans in the final time trial.
For Cadel Evans, CSC’s work put him in the yellow jersey which he figures to keep all the way to Paris. The only downsides have been a nasty crash, which doesn’t appear to have affected him permanently, and the fact that he personally was once again the victim of the dopers. Last year Evans lost significant time to Alberto Contador through Contador’s cooperation with the doping Michael Rasmussen in the mountains (editor's note - let's just go ahead and include Contador among the dopers, okay - Rasmussen wasn't the only villain in the peloton). This year Frank Schleck gained some time on Evans through his cooperation with the Saunier Duval riders. This is not Schleck’s fault or doing by any means, but it’s a shame that it happened to Evans twice and is the best argument of all for kicking out whole teams when riders get caught doping. Doping riders affect stage races far more than just the impact to their own performance.
Between now and the end of the Alps next week the race for the overall will be consumed by all the contenders’ efforts to gain time on Cadel Evans before the final time trial. Everyone is talking about Stage 17 and the finish on L’Alpe-D’Huez as the sight of the showdown, but I think the effort will need to be made on stages 15 and 16. CSC believes they need 3 minutes on Evans but the reality is they need to gain 4 minutes for Schleck and 5 for Sastre if they want a realistic shot to have the Yellow Jersey after the final time trial. If CSC waits until Stage 17 to attack, they will find that others will have conceded the race to Evans and that Evans will have allies who will chase down CSC attacks to preserve their own positions. Thus, I expect CSC will make a big effort Sunday on Stage 15 which begins with a big climb and presents an opportunity for Schleck or Sastre to get clear of Evans early in the stage. This would force Evans and his Silence Lotto team to chase all day and possibly set up an attack on the stages’ final climb by whichever CSC rider has followed Evans all day without doing any work. Denis Menchov may find himself the beneficiary of a CSC – Lotto battle over the weekend if he can simply hold out until the last climb and then launch an attack.
Alternately, Evans may prove able to resist any early attacks, shutting down CSC’s attempts to gain the lead. He may also get some help from Menchov’s Rabobank team in fending off CSC if Rabobank feels their best chance is one big attack by Menchov on L’Alpe-D’Huez. This might be good tactics by Rabobank if Menchov thinks he can outclimb Evans even briefly. CSC has eliminated Valverde for them, and helping Silence Lotto might eliminate CSC’s contenders, both of whom Denis Menchov can easily out time trial. Expect some odd alliances in the next few days.
Ultimately, I think Evans is the strongest man and will hold out for the win. I also think his team is a bit stronger than most people think and will be better able to protect him in the Alps. Finally I think CSC’s efforts to win stages will rob them of the energy they need to collectively defeat Evans. The fireworks should start again Sunday so if you’ve managed to still keep a positive attitude about the race tune in and you should see some good racing once again.
July 12, 2008
2008 Tour de France Update #1
|[Posted by BVBigBro]|
One week of the Tour is over now and everything has pretty much gone to form. Cadel Evans has lost no time to his rivals and sits comfortably in second place behind Kim Kirchen; a man Evans probably feels he can out time trial and out climb. Kirchen, in yellow, has given Evans’ Silence Lotto team a chance to rest in order to be able to support him in the mountains. The advantages to being a time trialer in the Tour are obvious. First, with a lead going into the mountains you can ride defensively and pick which attacks to follow knowing you do not need to gain time, but merely hold on to your lead. Second, after the mountains you get another time trial which obliges you opponents to attack in the mountains knowing that they have to gain significant time on you in the mountains in order for them to win. Evans is right where he wants to be heading into the Pyrenees and the first week could not have gone better for him.
For the other GC contenders there were few opportunities to gain time on Evans and several chances to lose time. Valverde grabbed a nice stage win and a few seconds in Stage 1, but also predictably lost a great deal more time in week’s lone time trial. More discouraging for Valverde were a crash and the inability to drop Evans on Stage 5, a stage in which several GC contenders lost a few seconds.
Denis Menchov was caught behind a crash and lost time on what should have been an easy flat stage. He rebounded with a nice time trial but showed no ability out climb Evans; something he will need to do in the coming week if he is to win the Tour.
Carlos Sastre showed nothing in the time trial and nothing in the little climbing that took place. Given he has not shown good form we can expect CSC and Bjarne Riis to change their focus to another rider for the overall; probably one of the Schlecks (editor's note: Yay! I'm rooting for Andy Schleck). Look for CSC to be all over the place with no focus for the rest of the Tour.
Several other hopefuls eliminated themselves. Damiano Cunego combined a crash, a poor time trial and some relatively poor climbing into a deficit he will not make up. Darkhorse Mauricio Soler crashed out. Roman Kreuziger turned in a poor time trial and has not looked quick on the hills. Ricardo Ricco of Saunier Duval had a nice stage win in Stage 5, but lost enough time in the time trial to make it clear he will not contend for the podium (and he’s crashing as I write this). Euskaltel’s Haimar Zubeldia had another predictably poor time trial and was not competitive.
If we’ve seen several weak peformances, we’ve also seen some impressive performances from some riders. Kim Kirchen was competitive everywhere and his Columbia team appears strong enough to support him for the full three weeks. I don’t think Kirchen is good enough to win, but he is certainly good enough to finish on the podium. His being in contention may benefit Evans as the Columbia team has been doing a lot of work with Kirchen in yellow and if Kirchen stays close they will be useful allies chasing down breaks in the mountains. Well done Mr. Kirchen and Team Columbia.
Another rider to watch in the next week is Euskaltel’s Samuel Sanchez. He currently sits eleventh and I think this will improve in the upcoming week on his home field of the Pyrenees. Sanchez turned in a respectable time trial (for him) and also kept with the lead group on the little breaks where people lost time. In past years Euskaltel would never have kept up front on these stages and this is a very good sign that both this team and rider are serious about a top placing. With the descents that we have in this race Sanchez stands an excellent chance at a high finish and an outside chance at the podium.
For the green jersey contenders, the first week told us nothing. This was an unusual year without a lot of guaranteed sprint finishes, but I think in the end Thor Hushovd is the strongest man and will find a way to win the jersey.
In the quest for the polka dots we saw Soler crash out and Voeckler try to get into every breakaway to get climbing points. There are way too many points available in the high mountains for Voeckler to maintain his lead, so I think someone like Ricco, Piepoli, Kreuziger or even one of the CSC riders to take a shot at the jersey.
On the doping end of things we’ve seen one rider, Manuel Beltran test positive and quickly get booted from the Tour. This is the right way to do it. Beltran is yet another former Postal/Discovery rider who has been booted for doping. Explain to me why the Tour would want a Johan Bruyneel team, Astana, in the Tour. (editor's note - are you trying to imply that perhaps Postal, Discovery, Bruyneel and L - - C - maybe have a systematic history of cheating? ;-)
That’s my take on the first week. I still think Evans looks good for the overall and I don’t think Valverde and Menchov have the goods to stop him. For the coming week there will be some tense riding in the mountains followed by some dangerous descents. Tomorrow’s Stage 9 should be the best one yet and fortunately it will be on live TV on the Versus channel and not part of the horrible weekend afternoon network coverage. Tune in tomorrow morning for some good racing.
July 02, 2008
2008 Tour de France Preview - Part 2
|[Posted by BVBigBro]|
Yesterday we looked at the teams and riders. Today we’ll look at the stages and see if we can make sense of a Tour that I think will be either a fairly straightforward win for Cadel Evans, or totally unpredictable.
For 2008 the Tour has dispensed with the usual formula of a short prologue followed by a week plus of flat stages interrupted only by an individual time trial. This year the Tour will start with several rolling road stages including some that that finish on short climbs followed by a medium length time trial and then quickly into mountains. There will be no chance for anyone to ride their way into form in this Tour. The riders will have to be at their best immediately or face the prospect of losing significant time before the real race would normally even begin. All in all I think this will work against the climbers as they normally don’t have to contest wide open road stages where they instead simply sit in the peloton and finish with the main group. This year that tactic will likely cost some riders some time.
Stage one will start the start the race and instead of being a stage for the sprinters it is a relatively flat stage that ends on a short uncategorized climb. Short climbs like this normally break up the finish enough that there are time gaps between the finishers. If this were a one day race the climb would result in a fight between a handful of riders like Valverde who can both sprint and climb. As it is, this is the Tour and there will be 180 riders all looking to avoid getting gapped on the climb and losing any time. This fact likely will result in a frantic finish and possibly some crashes. Valverde might be able to get an early win, but in order to do so he will have to take risks. CSC also has a lot of strong riders who could take this stage.
Stage two is a hilly stage that also has an unclassified climb near the finish. It will be difficult for the sprinters’ teams to hold this one together so we may see a breakaway get a win here. That would probably be OK with the GC contenders who will be looking to mark the other contenders to make sure no one gains any time.
After two stages where the sprinters may be shut out, Stage three is a flat stage that should give us a sprint finish. With Tom Boonen out this will likely be contested by Hushovd, McEwen, Freire and possibly also Robbie Hunter and Columbia/High Road’s Mark Cavendish. The battle for the green jersey begins in earnest here. (editor's note - I would also look to Garmin/Chipotle to make a play for a stage win in one of these first few stages - with no real GC contender, they'll want to make a splash early, so maybe Julian Dean in stage three?).
Stage four is the first time trial of the Tour. It’s flat, non-technical and only 29k so the time gaps should be relatively small. Nevertheless Evans and Denis Menchov need to take time out of their rivals here in order to have a good chance at overall victory. For the stage win I like CSC’s Fabian Cancellara or maybe David Millar who would love to get a stage win for Garmin/Chipotle in their first Tour.
Stage five should give us another sprint finish before we get some real climbing on Stage six. This stage has two category 2 climbs including a category 2 summit finish. While the climbs are not particularly difficult and we are not yet in the high mountains, the climbers can be expected to hit the final climb as hard as necessary to drop whoever they can. The final climb will be a maximum effort for all who fancy themselves contenders and by the end of this stage we will know who is pretending and who is for real. If there is to be a surprise contender like a Roman Kreuziger, we should know on this stage.
Stage seven is another transitional stage that has a category 2 climb midway though followed by a category 3 climb 9k from the finish. If any of the sprinters’ teams can get the group back together after the cat. 2 climb, they may be able to surprise everyone and get a sprint finish out of this stage. It’s more likely, though, that someone will break clear on the cat. 2 and hold out to the end. An aggressive descender like Samuel Sanchez may be a good candidate for a stage win here, especially if he has lost some time already and is not considered a threat by the other GC riders.
Stage eight begins with a bunch of category 3 and 4 climbs, but then levels out for the finish. There will be early breakaways desperately trying to hold out on this stage but I think it will be brought together in the end for another bunch sprint.
Stage nine hits the mountains in earnest. After some small early climbs we get the category 1 Col de Peyresourde followed quickly by the category 1 Col d’Aspin before a 26k descent to the finish. Once again a descender who can get over the mountains with the lead group stands an excellent chance of getting a stage win. For the contenders it will be a fight on the final descent to see if any time gaps gained on the last climb can be made good in the end. The final descent should see some risky riding as the leaders are either trying to keep their gains or limit their losses.
The riders will get no rest as the Tour gets into even more climbing on Stage ten. This stage takes the riders over the monstrous hors categorie Col du Tourmalet before a summit finish on the hors categorie Hautacam. If any of the pure climbers are to make an impact on the Tour they need to do well here. It’s possible that someone like Mauricio Soler will be out on an all day breakaway to rack up climbing points in a quest for the polka dot jersey and take a stage win in the process, but for riders like Evans and Menchov it will be a day of survival as they try to hold off the inevitable attacks on the climbs. If any of the contenders are able to successfully attack on the first climb, this may be a very exciting stage where a favorite or two sees their Tour dreams go up in smoke.
After finally getting a rest day the riders will have a relatively easy Stage eleven. This stage has a category 1 climb in the middle, but it is a good 50k from the finish so the contenders should not be able to take time from one another, especially after a rest day. Look for a breakaway to win or possibly a sprint if any of the sprinters teams make it over the summit of the climb intact.
Stage twelve loses quite a bit of elevation before a fairly flat second half of the stage so look for a relatively fast pace and a sprint finish. Stage thirteen has some small climbs, but finishes flat enough for yet another sprint finish. After this stage the green jersey contenders will be few in number and we may already have a winner if some of the sprinters had trouble in the mountains.
Stage fourteen is an interesting stage. It is nearly all uphill and while it has only two category 4 climbs, the stage gains over 2000 feet from start to finish. The final cat. 4 climb is less than 10k from the finish and I think we will see some fireworks here between both riders looking for a stage win and riders still in contention for the overall. Look for another frantic finish.
Stage fifteen is one of those stages I will be happy to be watching and not riding. The stage almost immediately hits the hors categorie Col Agnel and after a long descent and a flat stretch finishes on the category 1 Prato Nevoso. This stage takes place in the high mountains where the air is thinner and we can expect the remaining contenders to wait until the last climb when someone will attack with abandon. The remaining polka dot jersey hopefuls will likely be holding their own private war for whatever climbing points the GC contenders will let them have.
After another rest day Stage sixteen gets even harder with a pair of hors categorie climbs at high altitude, the Col de la Lombarde and the Cime de la Bonette-Restefond before a nasty, technical descent to the finish. Sammy Sanchez may find the Tour much to his liking if he can get over the climbs with the leaders and see another downhill finish.
Stage seventeen finally concludes the mountains with the Tours’ hardest day and the last chance for the climbers to gain significant ground. This stage goes over the hors categorie Col du Galibier, the hors categorie Col de la Croix de Fer and finally finishes at the summit of the famous L’Alpe-D’Huez. The stage is a nice mix of brutality and prestige and we will likely look back, point to this stage and say the Tour was won or lost here. The first two climbs will drop all but a couple dozen of the best riders and we will then see one of the Tours traditional spectacles as the riders ascend the switchbacks of L’Alpe-D’Huez. It’s fun to watch as the riders can sometimes see each other above and below them and know how much ground they are gaining or losing. Cadel Evans needs to find a way to hold out here and keep any time gaps that occur within the range of what he can make up in the final time trial.
The riders may be done with the mountains, but they are not done climbing as Stage eighteen features several small categorized climbs. After the previous days’ agony it will be easy for the teams and riders to lose focus but they must still be attentive as the final short climbs could provide the launching pad for a late attack. Unless the race is still in doubt, though, I think we’ll see a truce of sorts from the contenders and the stage go to a breakaway..
Stage nineteen is a rolling stage, but with all the climbing of the past week I think the breakaways will lose their legs and the sprinters’ teams will give us a bunch sprint with the possibility of the green jersey still in the balance if more than one top sprinter has made it through the Alps.
Stage twenty is the second individual time trial, this time 53k, and it will be the moment of truth for Cadel Evans and Denis Mechov. For Evans or Menchov to win they to be close enough after the mountains to put some serious time into their rivals in the “race of truth”. For those out of contention it will be difficult to get motivated for this stage so there will be some big time gaps to the back of the pack. For the contenders this will be one hour flat out for a chance at cycling’s biggest prize. There’s a purity to that that is appropriate for a three week race. I think Evans will get both a Tour and stage win here.
Stage twenty one is the final stage featuring the traditional criterium on the Champs-Ellysees. This stage will be a celebration for our winner and a prestigious stage win for one lucky sprinter.
Those are the stages. How will this race play out? In spite of the past few years, I don’t think the doping talk will overwhelm the Tour this year. The contenders and their teams are mostly the quiet sort and the worst offenders will not be present at all. The race itself looks to be Cadel Evans’ to win or lose, but this is in part because we don’t really know the quality of some of the younger riders and the fact that of all the riders only Oscar Pereiro has won the Tour previously and that result wasn’t finally confirmed until a few days ago. In short, it is fair to ask if any of the riders really know what it takes to win the Tour. That question is the place to start.
In order to win the Tour a rider first has to finish. That has been a problem for Alejandro Valverde who crashed out of the Tour before and also left because of injury. A rider also has to be able handle some adversity. Not everything will go your way in the Tour and you have to be able to accept time losses on some stages and still be able to come out the next day fighting. I see this especially in Evans and Sastre. Both are riders who give what they have and never quit. I don’t see the likes of Damiano Cunego beating them on guts.
Unless you are totally dominant it pays to be aggressive in the Tour. This is Valverde’s strength and thus far has been Evans’ weakness. Evans will be tested in the mountains by Valverde, Menchov and Sastre. Their ability to attack in the mountains likely will place Evans on the defensive and possibly reveal him as being weaker than thought.
From a technical standpoint you have to be good in the time trials and climbs. These are the only likely places one can gain time on rivals. Among the contenders Evans and Menchov are clearly the best time trialers and while all the contenders can climb Valverde has shown he can attack in the mountains. With several finishing descents we may see a descender who can climb like Sammy Sanchez be unexpectedly close to the front.
Finally, it pays to have a team that is 100% behind you and to have a director who is focusing his strategy on winning the overall. CSC has an immensely powerful team but has never used this team to support a single rider. I don’t think that will change this year and it may be Carlos Sastre’s biggest weakness. With so many strong riders it would be good tactics for CSC to send a darkhorse contender like one of the Schleck’s (editor's note - I would love to see one of the Schlecks get in the Yellow Jersey) up the road on the attack and force the other teams to make the choice between working to bring him back or risking a time gap that can’t be made up later. Either way it would work to Sastre’s advantage.
As I wrote before I’m picking Evans to win. Evans should have no trouble finishing and is mentally tough enough to handle the obstacles that will get in his way. Throughout the course of the first two weeks I think some of his competitors will eliminate themselves and Evans will be able to play enough defense in the mountains to keep the race close enough so that he can grab the yellow jersey in the final time trial if he needs to. His main competition will come from Denis Menchov who may be a better climber than Evans. If Menchov can get away on even a single mountain stage he can win this race (editor's note - I realize that the Chicken is persona non grata - but if Menchov couldn't win with Rasmussen's help in the mountains in 2006, I don't think he's going to win now without him). Finally, we have a host of inexperienced riders like Kreuziger, Sanchez, Ricco and Cunego. No one really knows what they are capable of but I fully expect at least one of them to step and challenge for a podium finish.
Last year I was very pessimistic about the Tour. This year I am optimistic. The Tour has taken a draconian stance on dopers and their enablers and it is paying off. While there is a lot of apprehension about what might happen this year I think we have a good group of riders that will stay clean and give us an entertaining, uncontroversial race. For Americans there will be no challenger for the overall this year, and probably not even a stage winner but if you simply like bike racing this should be years’ best race.
So sit back Saturday and enjoy. I’ll post a few updates throughout the race and let you know my thoughts on the action.
July 01, 2008
2008 Tour de France Preview – Part 1 or Politics in an Election Year
|[Posted by BVBigBro]|
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.