See? I told ya the Alps would be decisive! But why were they? Compare this race to last year's where the peloton went through the Pyrenees with barely a ripple-why is this year different? And why did so many riders fall off in the Alps? I see three reasons why this year's race is a lot harder:
1) The least important reason is there's no team time trial this year. Last year's TTT effectively eliminated several major riders way before we hit our first mountains but more importantly left one team, Astana, with its foot on the neck of the race. The twin story lines of the strength of Astana with Contador, Leipheimer, Kloden, and the return of Armstrong, plus the infighting between Armstrong and Contador not only colored the non-race headlines but seemed to intimidate the rest of the field. No other team seriously challenged Astana, not even Saxo Bank and the Schlecks even though Andy came in second. The race was all about if Armstrong could break Contador and that led to a tactical race and Contador, non-intimidated, handled all the decisive stages with ease. No one seriously challenged him.
2) This year there is no dominant team. Astana last year intimidated in classic Lance/USPS fashion. Yeah, Saxo was intimidated too and they were the only ones who even put up a fight. So the race was an Astana intramural affair, which meant tactics, which meant less attacking. This year Astana is joined by Saxo, Rabo, and Caisse d'Epargne as strong teams . More strong teams means a faster race.
3) Most importantly, Andy Schleck is no longer intimidated (much. More on that later.) He has matured into a top Tour rider who will eventually enter into the ranks of the great Tour riders in history. This year, Andy is ready to give Alberto a real challenge and that's what he's done. In doing so, he blew away some very good Tour riders who hung around the top last year because of the slower pace: he proved for all to see that while he and Bert are A-class Tour riders, the rest are B-class.
So how do we rank Andy and Bert? Check out on the jump...
(Numbers in parentheses are their rankings in the pre-race and second polls)
Going for the win
1. Albert Contador (1,1)
2. Andy Schleck (2,2)
We all know that these two are a cut above the rest. How's it gonna play out? The first thing to note what we all know almost as much as these two guys are the top two: that Contador can out time trial Schleck and Andy's 41 second lead at present is not enough for him. Probably he needs at least two minutes and maybe three or more before that last flat and possibly windy time trial on stage 19. So the onus is on Schleck to attack Contador.
(The interesting thing is that in the last two days Schleck has said that because he is in the lead, Contador has to attack him. No one, including Contador, believes this, and it's a change for what Schleck has said before too. So why would Andy say this? Why would he attempt a mind game with Bert? Same reason any rider who is very worried about a rival would: there's still a trace of intimidation remaining. His stage 8 10-second gap was encouraging but until he actually beats Bert he's got to wonder if he can. And so the claim that Bert needs to attack him.)
There's stage 12 that ends in Mende that might see some fireworks between the two, but anything decisive will happen in the Pyrenees: stages 14-17. How might it happen?
Most likely Andy will attack starting on stage 14. Contador will just try to cover. This will continue through the next three stages until either Contador cracks or Andy exhausts himself and Contador counters and cracks Andy. So who has the advantage? On stage 8, the advantage was Andy's and he got 10 seconds on Bert. Stage 9 saw a stalemate as Bert covered Andy's repeated attacks. It was said after the stage that Andy has exhausted himself and if Bert had attacked near the top of the Madeline, he would have gaped Andy. But who knows if that's really true? At any rate with the long run-in to the finish, an attack by Bert so close to the top would have proven meaningless and so Bert was content to sit back.
So who has the advantage in the Pyrenees? I say Bert because he is looking for that third week peak and definitely got stronger in the Alps as they went along. I'm not saying that Andy will tail off; he should keep his form that he has already shown. But it says here that Bert will cover Andy's attacks then when he chooses, he'll attack and KO Andy. That's what I see as most likely but, hey, its close enough that possibly Andy gaps Bert. My odds of what we'll see after the Pyrenees and before the time trial:
- 50% Bert in yellow
- 25% Andy in yellow with a small (less than 2 minutes) lead
- 20% Andy in yellow with at least 2 minutes on Bert
- 5% that one of them cracks so much that one of the next three riders sneaks into 2nd.
You of course would put up different odds. Whatever happens though: it will be fun.
Whoa! What was that 5% thing you said? The riders shooting for the bottom podium step
3. Samuel Sanchez (5,16)
4. Denis Menchov (3.4)
5. Levi Leipheimer (11,14)
There's a slight chance that Bert or Andy might go so far into the red in their fight that they just lose it on a climb. (I strongly suggest that Astana and Saxo place a climber in the first group chasing Andy and Bert so if they do crack they won't be alone too long and so can minimize their losses.) If so it will be these three riders who will take advantage. We know these guys: great Tour B-class GC contenders. All have been on a podium or two or three in a Grand Tour with Menchov winning three of them. They're all descent climbers, they like the Pyrenees in particular, they know how to peak in week three of a Grand Tour, they will stay within themselves on the climbs, and they can all TT really well. That combination is gonna make it hard for any other rider to jump ahead of them plus it will leave them in position to take advantage if either Andy or Bert overcook themselves on a climb. (Particularly Andy since his time trialing is not on the level of these guys.)
So how do you rank these guys? Hell if I know. I have them in the GC order that they are in today but that's fairly meaningless. They basically start off even in my book.
After the top five, things are still really murky. You got climbers who can't TT well, time trialists who aren't the best climbers, inexperienced riders, and riders who really put out in the Giro and so might fade. All of these guys are fairly close to each other too. What to do? Go with veterans and climbers, then make exceptions! Ha!
Top Five is what these guys are hoping for
6. Roman Kreuziger (7,7)
7. Bobo Gesink (17,--)
These two guys are fighting for the next spot I think. I give the nod to Roman because Gesink is time trialing so poorly this year, but I could see the positions reversed. Great to see Bobo come back from his arm fracture.
8. Joaquin Rodriguez (10,21)
This is the last guy here who has a chance at a top 5 or even the podium if he rips the Pyrenees. He's far enough back that Andy and Bert won't automatically cover a move by him. He's just got to be patient: the Tourmalet is a little longer than Wolf Mountain. Ax 3 might be right in his wheelhouse. But first, let's see him make a move at Mende.
Top Ten hopefuls
9. Jurgen Van Den Broeck (20,9)
A very nice Tour for this first time leader and *Lotto must be very happy. I have him drifting lower here because he's not quite the climber of the guys above and his chrono abilities are not good enough for him to leapfrog them either.
10. Lulu Sanchez (18,12)
Lulu's a tough one. Going on that break on stage 9 was fantastic and pulled him up so that his goal of a top 10 finish is within reach. I have him drifting lower than he is at now (8th place) because I wonder if he can handle the Pyrenees. What he has going for him is that his team is pretty aggressive and I can see him going on another break if necessary with his team again supporting him. Also he's riding for a contract on another team since Caisse d'Epargne is most likely about to die. (Which explains why on almost every stage (or is it every?) we see at least one Cd'E rider on the break. They are all auditioning.* If he does survive the mountains, the time trial is to his advantage.
* Now ask me why the Milram riders aren't similarly aggressive. Go on: ask. Maybe the new Team Luxembourg has already hired them?
11. Ivan Basso (9,23)
12. Cadel Evans (8,3)
These two Giro vets hope to find a peak in the Pyrenees and if they do they could move up higher than 11th and 12th; especially Evans since he should then rock the time trial. But I want to see them peaking first.
13. Ryder Hesjedal (21,11)
Gutsy ride by Ryder but his career which has only ever been on an upward trend suggests that he can do this and possibly crack the top 10. Garmin's Tour team next year: a two headed GC campaign with Hesjedal and Le Mevel?
14. Alexander Vinokourov (16,8)
15. Michael Rogers (12,15)
If these two can hang reasonably well in the mountains, the time trial will move them up from here.
16. Brad Wiggins (5,4)
17. Thomas Lovkvist (--,13)
Sky has had its comeuppance in this Tour. But what will be more fascinating will be how they react. Buy a different GC guy? Place their eggs in their developmental basket? Both? Stay tuned.
18. Nicholas Roche (23,10)
Cheeky move by Roche today but Wiggo and Lovkvist can climb as well as him and they'll rip him apart in the TT.
19. Carlos Sastre (19,22)
Hey-I gotta fill out a top 20, so I'll serve up Carlos in the 19 hole.
20. Anderas Kloden (14,18)
The Andreas Kloden retirement watch officially begins. Might take a year, but his relevance in the GC is now gone.
Out of the top 20: Armstrong (13,6), Brajkovic (--, 17), Karpets (--,19), Le Mevel (22,20)