In every Grand Tour – but particularly in the Tour de France – there are always a fascinating range of "significant others". By that I mean the guys who might, at a pinch, win the whole race, but who, for one reason of another, probably won’t. They will be on all the pundits’ list of favorites, before being dismissed almost out of hand. Other favorites will be very wary of them going on the attack – until they have dumped time. And usually they have the team’s absolute backing – until they don’t, which is usually sometime after the second mountain stage. So: who are this year’s GC candidates with no chance at the GC, and what do they do about it? And could any of them actually spring a suprise?
Carlos Sastre, Cervelo
Let’s start with one of the least respected Tour winners (by the media, at least) in recent times, who climbs like a dream and has won the race on the Alp – one of the toughest things to do in professional cycling. Any yet he is not even captain of his own team (that would be Thor). Cervelo looks split-squadded in a major way, with some big engines dedicated to pushing the Norsk God towards the Green jersey. Compared with the armadas that will be leading some of the other big names up the hills, Sastre is likely to find himself pretty lonely, pretty quickly. Perhaps that is just rational expectation from Cervelo – Sastre is coming back from what sounds a pretty bad injury (which caused him to have a quiet Giro), is in what might be politely regarded as no longer his first flush of youth, seems to have the pack sense of a polar bear and is riding his second GT this year – none of which do him any favours. And yet, maybe – just maybe – he can ride himself into form in time for the Pyrenees. Certainly, if he hasn’t crashed, got caught in a split, or dropped three random minutes for no explicable reason (all of which are more than possible, even likely) none of the favorites would be happy to see him hopping out of the saddle and up the road at the foot of the Tourmalet. Chances are slim, but given the course and the likely strategic confusion, hope springs eternal.
Damiano Cunego, Italian Soap Opera
So if not a former Tour winner, how about a former Giro winner? I still find Damiano 2004 Giro title one of less explicable events of the wild and wacky world of Italian stage racing, but you have to give him credit for having the skins on the wall. In truth, Damiano is a classic case of the frustrated bicyclist. Too good (at least in his own head) not to go for a GC placing, he has neither the top-end climbing punch nor the pure TT-ing ability actually to make an impact. He is also remarkably inexperienced for a man of his reputation – only two TdFs and only one finished. In may ways, a "bad day" early is his biggest hope to make an impact. Dump enough time on the cobbles or in the Alps, and the favorites may let him go up the road to chase stage wins. But, if he rides as consistently as he rode in this year’s Giro, that ’04 Maglia Rosa will continue to cast its malevolent aura over him – condemning him to ride in the ever thinning leaders group until slowly – quite late on in the stage – he slips off the back for 30 seconds of negative tv time. Unless he chases stages, mid to low teens seems his likely fate. Higher than that, and we will have airborne pigs to worry about.
Leeeenooos Gerdeman, Moo
I think probably by this time we have all rid ourselves of the impression that Leeennooos is a GT winner in waiting. That day to le Grand Bornand in 2007 is a long time ago. And yet, he is still immensely talented with the full GC backing of the bike racing monster that is Milram. So what does he do? In the Giro, he seemed totally committed to racing for the GC – which he did well until he vanished without trace to the morass that is 16th place. In the Tour? I think not even desperate German DSs will believe that there is a reasonable chance of a top tier GC result. Too many contenders and not enough form is my guess. So the best result – for both Leeenos and Moo, would be a long Alpine breakaway. With the team on its last legs, they need it – so no pressure then. Stage maybe, GC definitely not.
Christian Van de Velde, the Evil Empire 1.0
While I am not amongst those who think the Gar-men take their orders from Mephistopholes, you do have to wonder if CVV once tripped over a black cat causing him to smash into a mirror while walking under a ladder. If there is ever a man who Lady luck utterly despises, it is our favourite Crash Test Dummy. Smashed up beyond recognition last year, he recovered in time to ride shotgun on his shotgun – which he did superbly, it should be noted, and even getting a decent GC result himself to back up his fourth place the previous year. This year, the Dutch and Italians ganged up and it was "hey ho off to hospital we go" for Christian. The injuries were less bad, and if ever there was a man used to riding himself into form on the highest stage, it is CVV. He has his team back, albeit split squadded – though Garmin seems to do an excellent job using its sprint lead out riders effectively to protect its GC hope, but the field is crowded and pure mountain domestiques are absent from the squad. My guess is he will do exactly as he always does (when he manages to stay on the bike) – ride unobtrusively to a solid GC position. The only trouble is the crowded nature of the field this year – an excellent ride could end up anywhere from 5th to 15th. To achieve this year's Garmen 4th place would be remarkable. Whatever else is certain, the ride will be unobtrusive and the absolute maximum he can produce.
Michael Rogers, Aitch Tee Hee
In many ways, Rogers is similar to Leenos – another ex-Tmob rider who had his day in the sun in the 2007 Tour. To be fair, Rogers has a more solid set of Palmares and some pretty impressive form this year, in the form of wins in the Amgen Leipheimer Invitational and the Vuelta a Andalucia, and fine performances in the Criterium International (Rogers seems to enjoy appropriating other’s personal domains) and the Tour de Romandie. His problem is his team, which is less split squadded and more totally unified behind the rolling polemica that is the Cav express. Cav’s poor form may actually benefit Rogers here – HTC may want to keep their options open and release Rogers plus help from lead out duties. Most likely, they will go all in again and Rogers could find himself mashing at the front of the peleton ten kms from home. But you never know, the team may want to keep enough ammunition in their pocket to support Rogers at least through the Alps, and further if he is still in there. His form has been promising, and he deserves his chance. It feels like low top ten would be an outperformance, but oddly, the everyday boys are coming in needing someone to show - I don't know, every day? So perhaps they may take their minds (briefly) off drag racing for Cav, and let Rogers roam free.