Tour de France is Contador’s to lose

Monday, July 20, 2009


So, after two weeks of racing, Alberto Contador finally got the green light and wasted no time showing who was boss, both on the Astana team and in the Tour de France.
Perhaps the veiled sniping between the Contador camp and the Lance Armstrong supporters can quiet down. The rules of cycling dictate that Armstrong ride in suport of Contador. Lance said he would, and he has supported Levi Leipheimer well in California and the Giro d’Italia. Handling the role with grace while the world is watching will add to his legacy.
People have complained that the racing has been boring and have blamed the Tour organizers for a course that didn’t allow the contenders, in the words of Paul Sherwen, “to come out and play.” I’m not sure that’s correct. During the Tour of Missouri, a reporter asked Leipheimer about the ease of the terrain here versus France. He responded that the riders and the verve with which they ride determines the difficulty of the race, not the steepness of the hills. So, perhaps, the riders’ unwillingness to stir things up _ or the teams’ abilities to neutralize any early attacks _ kept the first two weeks from being as exciting as the past couple Tours.
It’s a rest day, and we’re tired of borrowing quotes from the guys working their tales off in France. So, let’s analyze what the favorites have to do to make it to the podium in Paris.
Alberto Contador: He’ll really have to mess up to miss the podium. However, Contador lost Paris-Nice this spring and nearly yielded the top of the podium at last year’s Vuelta to teammate Levi Leipheimer because of bad bonks: failure to stay fed and hydrated. As long as team director Johan Bruyneel force-feeds him, though, he should be the top dog in Paris.
Lance Armstrong: Astana would love a 1-2 finish in Paris, but Armstrong has his work cut out for him. There are three difficult mountain stages, the final one at the top of Ventoux. He admitted that he doesn’t have the top gear and should be riding in a support role. He could even lose time in the time trial Thursday. Armstrong finished 10th in the opening TT; seven of the guys who finished in front of him on the opening day have podium aspirations. He’s got his work cut out for him to maintain a spot in the top three.
Bradley Wiggins: Wow. What a surprise. Wiggins will have to hold the wheels of the rest of the rivals in the mountain stages but could make up time Thursday. He finished 20 seconds ahead of Armstrong in the 15K opener, one second behind Contador. He’s just 11 seconds out of second place but needs to maintain his mountain form as well.
Andreas Kloden: He earns kudos for taking the high road in the Astana leadership flapdoodle and has been a good teammate to Armstrong and Contador. He also beat Armstrong in the opening time trial and appeared fresher than the seven-time champ at the end of Stage 15, riding away in the final 1K. He’s finished on the podium twice in Paris; so it wouldn’t be a surprise if he _ and not Armstrong _ was the second Astana rider on the stage in Paris. a 1-2-3 finish for Astana also isn’t out of the question.
Andy Schleck: His plusses are that he’s just 13 seconds out of third place and he’s the only guy who has come close to matching Contador in the mountains, so the younger of the Schleck brothers could best Contador on Mont Ventoux. He showed that he has worked hard on his weakness — the time trial — with a respectable performance in the opener, but probably will lose a chunk of time Thursday to Wiggins, Armstrong and Cadel Evans. He’ll have to have a big mountain day, making up maybe three minutes, to compensate and move to the podium. That is a tall ask.
Vincenzo Nibali: He’s just 50 seconds out of third and is a better time trialist than Schleck. He finished a surprising third on Sunday, so he could be in good position if Wiggins or Armstrong falters.
Carlos Sastre: He seemed caught off-guard by the early attack on Verbier but regained his composure. Still, he’s more than two minutes off the podium and not a renown time trialist (though he’s better than he’s given credit for being). His best hope is a repeat performance on Ventoux of his epic clmb on Alpe d’Huez last year.
Christian VandeVelde: He had a bad day Sunday, going out too fast too soon, and lost two minutes. He’s more than 2 1/2 minutes off the podium, so a whole lot of folks would have to have bad days for Christian to move into contention. He loves to time trial, though, and should move up in the overall standings Thursday. To his credit, he was genuinely enthusiastic about supporting Wiggins, his Garmin teammate, for the rest of the race, as opposed to Armstrong’s resignation at a lost chance for victory. But then, Christian spent his career as a support rider, so he’s returning to his former comfort zone.
Cadel Evans: He sounds as if he’s thrown in the towel. He had a bad day to Verbier, but really lost his chance on the fourth stage, when his team turned in a poor performance in the team trial and put him three minutes off the lead. He could take a stage win in the time trial, but his overall chances are shot.

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