Le Tour: Yellow Jersey Preview and Power Poll


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By far the biggest prize in cycling: race for the best time in the Tour de France. It's so big that many riders will use the rest of the cycling season, including many worthy races, as training for this one three week jaunt around France (and Netherlands and Belgium this time).  And post-Tour? Often it's just recovery time and/or time to rest on your laurels if you gained any at Le Tour. We are talking BIG here. 

So how's the race shaping up? Weird. Just plain weird. The top of the power poll is boring as there's a stone cold lock for #1 and close to a lock for #2, but after that there's a mess of riders who have legit chances for a podium or high finish. How many you ask? I count nine riders (after the top two) who can make a good case for a podium spot in Paris. There's another eight who realistically can see a top five spot by the end and nineteen more riders who can make the top ten if things break right for them. Add all of them up and you get... uh... thirty-six riders who can make a case for at least a top ten place. 

 So it will be fun to see the comments below saying I ranked so-and-so way to low or way to high. The reality is that there's this huge chunk of riders and some of them will seem ranked way too low at first but I can't justify moving them up higher yet. I guess that why they do this race. 

As with Chris and the Green Jersey power poll, I have some criteria that I use to rank the riders. The scales for the different criteria are different because some aspects of winning this year's yellow jersey are more important than others. 

Here's the criteria I am using to rank them pre-Tour. It's a little tricky as there are different scales for each rating:

Climbing: On a scale of 1-20 with 20 being the best. 

Time trialing: 1-10 scale here as there is only the one big but it is at the end and could move a rider up or down a couple notches.

Team support: 1-5 scale again. This is actually a very tricky measure because team support is of different importance to different riders. Also, to some degree I agree with Cadel Evans saying that this year's course makes teams less important.  (At least for the GC battle.) I'm not saying he's completely right-I don't really know as I am not in the peloton-but he should know more than anybody when team support would be more or less important, no?

Special circumstances: This is a penalty of one or two points I put in for things like riding this year's Giro or riding the Tour for the first time or leading their team for the first time. Basically  these riders, wonderful men all and their mother's love them very much, have something to prove beyond what a veteran like Lance or Menchov need to prove. Hopefully that will make sense when we get to the specific riders.

Add up the numbers and you get a score. The higher the better.  You will notice though that several riders will have the same scores but one is ranked higher than others.  

Intangibles: This is not part of the scoring system but some teams and riders have issues beyond pure ability and I will note them here. 

On to the rankings!

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For this pre-Tour power poll, I've broken down the riders into four groups which will be self-explanatory:

Group A: Riders who are in contention to win


1. Alberto Contador, Astana

Climbing: 20
Time trialing: 10
Team: 4
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 34

Intangibles: Not much negative here unless you really think Vino will attack him. In that case I have a bridge in Brooklyn to sell ya.

Comments: Notice that The Accountant (Contador is translated as "Accountant") is the only one in the "Riders with a chance to win the race" section. That's cause it's his race to lose. No one is better than him at climbing or time trialing or prepping for the race (though a couple are equals in one category or another). At age 27 1/2 he's just entering the prime of his career.  He's gonna get better folks. He can't be beaten if he brings his A game and there's little doubt that he will. 

An interesting side note is that Bicycling magazine's Whit Yost says that Bert's Astana team is the strongest team in the Tour this year. Yeah, I don't buy that either and along with noticing that he/they have Radio Shack as the #2 team and this is an American magazine one wonders about the psychological angle here: Lance as underdog! But in doing so, Yost does note one important thing: Astana is totally focused on Contador. That was not the case in Contador's two previous wins and the only Grand Tour win that he's had where that was the case was the 2008 Vuelta where he blew away the field (other than teammate Levi) and in doing so (for VDS players) earned a record for a single race of 1400 VDS points. And it should be noted that the Astana team, maybe not #1 is no worse than, well here are my top rankings:

1. Radio Shack

2. Saxo Bank

3. Astana

4. Liquigas

5. Rabobank

These five teams are totally focused on the Yellow Jersey (well except for Oscarito and even he will do some pulling in the flats if a Rabobank rider is in the lead) and all are good, meaning that all can deliver victory for their leader if said leader is in position.

As I said, the top of this ranking is boring. Bert is a cut above the rest. Note I am not guaranteeing victory because he can lose it. He can crash or he can bonk or he can forget to get to the start of the time trial on time. But barring an accident he will stroll down the Champs d'elysses in yellow for a third time. 

 

Riders who should podium

2. Andy Schleck, Saxo Bank

Climbing: 19
Time trialing: 6
Team: 5
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 30

Intangibles:  There's that new team thingy.

Comments: In putting Schlecket second, I am saying that his prior results this year meant little; that his form at the Tour will have little resemblance to what we've previously seen. That will be true with several riders on this list. I fully expect to see Andy in great form.

That said, there's the team problem, specifically he and his brother Frank riding for a new (or another) team next year. How might this affect Andy's and Frank's chances? I think not much-as long as things go well with the team. However if they encounter problems (which will happen if they are not diplomatic enough), its possible that the team may not help them like they have in the past. I'm speculating of course but to me this situation could get very fluid very quickly. Or not. But it bears keeping an eye on. I think the competition in the top 10 is stronger this year than last. I'd like to guarantee him the second step on the podium in Paris but if the team thingy gets wonky the likes of Wiggins, Menchov, J-Rod, Sam San, Kreuziger and Basso, Cadel and a Radio Shacker (which one?) could all pass Andy and brother Frank. Note that this is a very different problems than last year's Astana/Bert/Lance soap opera.  Andy and Frank have to keep the trust and interest of their teammates. 

Here's a scenario: Cancellara wins the prologue and extends his lead on the cobbled stage three. They head into the Alps with Contador actually having a minute lead on the other GC guys. Obviously Fabian won;t hold that lead to Paris and in the past he would not hesitate to help out his teammates when the first mountain came into view. But if the Schlecks are pissing of the team in any way perhaps Cancellara tries to hold onto the yellow jersey for a stage or two in the Alps. Perhaps also he doesn't help much in the Pyrenees leading up to the final time trial. That's a nightmare Cancellara scenario for the Schlecks and we could see other signs: the Sorensens and Jens! going stage hunting for instance. The Schlecks are gonna have to reach out to their teammates some I think in a way they haven't before. 

Finally, notice that Andy is the only one in this category, just like Bert is the only one in the first. Andy is just better than the next group of riders unless they pull out a great ride. It's doubtful that two of them can do that and, along with Contador, deny him a podium spot.  

Riders eyeing the podium

3. Denis Menchov, Rabobank

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 7
Team: 4
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 29

Intangibles:  Russian rider on a Dutch team? With a Dutch GC hope also on the same team?

Comments: Menchov is another rider who has had a quiet year though he places second at both Murcia and Romandie and showed some life with a fifth at the Dauphine's long TT.  The thing about Denis is that he's the third most accomplished Grand Tour rider in the race (after Armstrong and Contador) having won three Grand Tours (two Vueltas and one Giro) plus he has a few top five finishes at the Tour. When he's on his game he's a very serious contender.

I do wonder about support for him if Gesink does well initially. With no TT to separate Menchov from Gesink until the mountains are over its possible that the team may want Gesink to take the leaders saddle if Gesink climbs as he is capable of. But Menchov is no slouch going uphill too. 

4. Bradley Wiggins, Sky

Climbing: 15
Time trialing: 10
Team: 4
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 29

Intangibles:  The Team Sky mojo.

Comments:  Prepping for a Grand Tour is half the battle. (I have no idea if that is true but it sounds good doesn't it?). Seriously though, all the major contenders have to be into serious Tour-prep by two months ago. My guess is that the Sky management have done all sorts of things with Bradley to he can peak at the right time: they really are serious at winning this race. I don't think they will but I can imagine a podium spot and I'd be shocked if he fell out of the top five.

One other comment. Under special circumstances I do not give Wiggins a penalty for riding the Giro-which I do for Basso, Sastre, Vinokourov, and Evans.  It looked to me that Wiggins did not put in the effort to win the Giro and so expended less energy than the others.

5. Samuel Sanchez

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 7
Team: 4
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 29

Intangibles: Nothing to report.

Comments: I like Samu on these climbs. He'll drop off the front early enough but will just shift into a good rhythm and keep in loose contact with the leaders. That and a decent time trial will have him sniffing the podium. It will be interesting to see how Euskaltel supports him as normally they freelance a lot. You got Txurruka and Martinez going off on various climbs when they could be supporting Samu.

6. Frank Schleck, Saxo Bank

Climbing: 19
Time trialing: 5
Team: 5
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 29

Intangibles: There's that new team thingy again.

Comments: He knows how to peak for this race and the main reason he is not ranked higher is because his brother is and Frank is more supporting Andy than riding for himself. Like his brother he has to deal with the possible unraveling of his team which he and his brother are causing. As a result his ranking could take a big dive this year.

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7. Roman Kreuziger, Liquigas

Climbing: 17
Time trialing: 7
Team: 5
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 29

Intangibles: Looks real good.

Comments: Hmm. Top 10 feels like a very safe prediction for Roman.  Top five is very possible depending on how things break with other riders. I don't see a possible split team with Liquigas as he and Basso will help each other.  I very much liked his Suisse prep race too: 16th overall; not yet in peak form. He's my surprise podium pick.

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8. Cadel Evans, BMC

Climbing: 17
Time trialing: 10
Team: 2
Special circumstances: -1 for riding the Giro.
Total score: 28

Intangibles: Nothing to report

Comments: This is the one rider who I think could beat Contador at his own game. Not will-could. It does not help that he rode the Giro. Evans will need a quiet first two weeks, looking to conserve as much energy as possible (don't attack: suck wheels instead) and work to stay in the top three heading into the time trial.  Easier said than done.

As an aside, take a look at the riders I have listed here. The sad thing right now with this group is that there are hardly any rivalries between them. In part that's because several of them don't take any other races very seriously. But its also because they often don't target the same races. This, I think is a problem for a number of the riders because they don't really learn what it takes to beat some of the other guys.

To illustrate what I'm getting at, take the one pair that is the biggest rivalry: Evans and Contador. They have targeted several of the same races in the past, most recently La Fleche Wallonne where Evans played a perfect game in beating Contador at the line.  Now if instead of Evans that had been oh Samuel Sanchez or Ivan Basso or Andy Schleck I doubt they would have beaten Bert except perhaps by luck. They just don't know Bert that well; Cadel does though.  (Lulu Sanchez does too.) Most riders get so caught up in carefully measuring their own performance that they forget that the race is not just against the clock but against other riders. True, older riders do learn this slowly. Lance knows this obviously. Mick Rogers I think knows this judging from his California win.  The best team leaders know this and it separates them from say Andreas Kloden.

9. Ivan Basso, Liquigas

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 6
Team: 5
Special circumstances: -1
Total score: 28

Intangibles:  Nothing to report.

Comments: Ivan, Cadel, Vino: how well will the Giro big boys do? I know I have Cadel ranked above Ivan but I keep thinking that Basso will turn out better with that relentless grinding style he has. I think they will both get dropped in the big mountains.  Basso will keep grinding away though and wind up in the top 10.

10. Joaquin Rodriguez, Katusha

Climbing: 19
Time trialing: 6
Team: 4
Special circumstances: -1 See Intangibles.
Total score: 28

Intangibles:  This is his first Tour.

Comments: I talked about him in the KOM preview but I see no reason for him to chase the spotty jersey when he'll be in contention for the GC podium al the way until at least the last time trial. J-Rod, Contador, and both Schlecks should be the four best climbers in this race. 

11. Levi Leipheimer, Radio Shack

Climbing: 17
Time trialing: 9
Team: 2
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 28

Intangibles: Not a team leader.

Comments: I don't take his non-winning of the Tour of California as an alarming signal that he's lost it as I presume he'll be in better shape for the Tour than for Cali. But we'll see. He'll be working for Lance (like Kloden) but if Lance falters he's the presumed second option. Age, of course is now a problem. He's 36, soon to be 37. I can't see him winning the Tour but he's the most likely of the lower ranked riders here to podium. He knows how to peak in the third week and the time trial course suits him to a T.

Riders Looking For a Top 5 Place

12. Michael Rogers, HTC-Columbia

Climbing: 16
Time trialing: 9
Team: 2
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 27

Intangibles: Nothing to report.

Comments: Minimize his chances at your peril, says I. What I am hoping is that he goes on the attack on stage 9 so that he can fully exorcise his demons from that crash three years ago. The main problem he has is a lack of support to the point where he may be asked to help Cavendish.

13. Lance Armstrong, Radio Shack

Climbing: 15
Time trialing: 6
Team: 5
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 26

Intangibles: Hey! I'm not writing Remembrance of Things Past here!

Comments: I kinda doubt that it will happen but if that US investigation bears fruit during the Tour and gets released, Radio Shack could be totally screwed and withdraw. But I doubt that will happen. That leaves Lance's age as the biggest negative to his chances and I find that said age will leave him with a top 10 placing but no higher. The attacking in the Pyrenees will get to him.

14. Andreas Klöden, Radio Shack

Climbing: 16
Time trialing: 8
Team: 2
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 26

Intangibles: Nothing to report

Comments: Klöden is probably scored too low. He has a knack for working for other riders and still pounding out a top five finish-usually. (See his 2008 season for when that didn't happen.) How does he do it? He's one of the best at not going into the red zone. He rarely blows up. He'll be working for Lance of course, but that didn't hurt him last year. He's 35 meaning that one of these years he'll drop off the Tour contenders lists but until he actually does so I hesitate to rank him low.

15. Christian Vande Velde, Garmin-Transitions

Climbing: 15
Time trialing: 7
Team: 3
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 25

Intangibles: Recovering again from a Giro crash

Comments: I keep thinking that he'll definitely slide this year but then he has experience now on how to stay in touch on the big climbs. I predict he'll end up somewhere between 8-12.

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16. Alexandre Vinokourov, Astana

Climbing: 14
Time trialing: 9
Team: 3
Special circumstances: -1 For Giro heroics
Total score: 25

Intangibles: Nothing to report.

Comments: I give about a 0% chance of Vino attacking his teammate. In fact I think he's doing everything possible to keep Bert in the Astana fold beyond this year. (Notice that there are only To Kazakhs on the team-less than what were told would happen last winter (at least three). It makes me start to wonder how Vino will be as a DS in the future and I think he could be very successful.

But how likely is it that Vino can crack the top 10? I think less than 50%. He put out big-time at the Giro and after two weeks of the Tour, when we hit the Pyrenees, Vino will fight hard but get dropped.

17. Robert Gesink, Rabobank

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 4
Team: 3
Special Circumstances: 0
Total score: 25

Intangibles: Closing ability?

Comments: Here's what I am now wondering about Bobo: does he have problems closing out a race? There have been a few races in his career where he has been in position to win but near the end, loses:

  • 2010 Suisse Tour. This just finished and we saw how he had the lead going into the final time trial and lost. It wasn't like any other rider seized the day and blew away the field either. Bobo just had a crappy time trial and placed fifth.
  • 2010 Pais Vasco. Going into the next to last stage, Gesink was tied with Horner for second place, one second behind leader Valverde. He crashed going up the last climb and lost 50+ seconds and he wound up eighth.-
  • 2009 Amstel Gold Race. At the base of the finishing climb of this one day race, Gesink was with Kroon and Ivanov ahead of a hard charging peloton. Now of the three, Bobo is the best climber. His final placing? Third.
  • 2008 Paris-Nice. Leading that race and nearing the end of the next to last stage he had all sorts of difficulties on the decent into Cannes, falling back to fourth place as a result.

I could go on but I won't. Bobo's talent isn't a question. He's a contender to win every race he enters. He's only 24. He's also only won one race-last year's Giro dell'Emilia. Each time he loses a race its because of something that he doesn't normally do and it's usually a different thing. IMO he's a top ten talent but needs to deal with his ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Right now though compared to the rider on this list who's 25 days older-Roman Kreuziger-I would pick Roman first for my team every time.

18. Luis León Sánchez, Caisse d'Epargne

Climbing: 13
Time trialing: 9
Team: 4
Special circumstances: -1 Never lead a team before
Total score: 25

Intangibles: The team leader thing.

Comments: Ooooh. Very tough one to predict and as such most experts are not predicting him to do well. Pretty easy, right? You don't know a rider very well so naturally you talk him down. I find such thinking highly annoying and they are doing it not only with Lulu but with J-Rod too. Sticking with Lulu, he has no experience at leading a team in a Grand Tour, though at least he's ridden the Tour a couple times including snagging a couple stage wins and he has lead teams in week long stage races where he has won. He's also untested pretty much on the big climbs since he was normally working for Valverde. However, when he peaks he's a good climber and one of the best time trialists. His Suisse Tour sure looked like he was building form to me.

So to me Lulu is a wild card. I think he has the talent to be a Grand Tour winner. If so, he has the talent to secure a top 10 place here.

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19. Carlos Sastre, Cervelo Test Team

Climbing: 18
Time trialing: 5
Team: 2
Special circumstances: -1 Hard Giro workout with hurt body parts
Total score: 24

Intangibles: Injury concerns.

Comments: Sandbagging? Is he healthy or not? Beats me and the correct answer will see him in the top five or top 75.

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20. BCS #1: Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Omega Pharma Lotto

Climbing: 17
Time trialing: 6
Team: 2
Special circumstances: -1 First time leader
Total score: 24

Intangibles: Nada

Comments: No, I can't imagine this guy finishing 20th either but I can't just put him ahead of guys like Levi or Bobo or Christian at this point. But somehow he'll place higher and surprise the so-called experts.

21. Ryder Hesjedal, Garmin Transitions

Climbing: 14
Time trialing: 6
Team: 4
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 24

Intangibles: Nothing to report

Comments: Here's another wild card. He's having a career year yet no one is talking about his chances. The main question is how strong will he be in the Pyrenees.

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22. Christophe Le Mevel, Française des Jeux

Climbing: 17
Time trialing: 4
Team: 3
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 24

Intangibles: Nothing to report

Comments: Ranked way too low here. But who on the list above is definitely worse?

23. Nicholas Roche, AG2R

Climbing: 15
Time trialing: 5
Team: 3
Special circumstances: 0
Total score: 23

Intangibles: Nothing to report

Comments: Turns 26 the day of the prologue. Will finish in the top 15. Wonder what kind of offers he's been getting to change teams?

 

Other riders that Ursula throws a frickin' bone at:

Jani Brajkovic, Sandy Casar, Damiano Cunego, Francis De Greef, Jakob Fuglsang, Linus Gerdemann, Chris Horner, Vlad Karpets, Thomas Lovkvist, Maxime Monfort, Danny Moreno, Pierre Rolland, Kevin Seeldrayers (BCS #2), Rein Taaramae, Dave Zabriskie. A couple of these are more likely than the others to place in or near the top ten, but the point is any of these could.

Photos by Getty Images Sport

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