Contenders and Pretenders: Taking Stock of the GC Race

How many more days will Chris Froome don the maillot jaune? - Bryn Lennon

After nine days of racing, Chris Froome leads the race and seems unassailable. But reducing the GC race to such a statement would be premature and presumptuous. How do things look for the next two weeks?

Sometimes things go according to plan, and sometimes they don't. For Team Sky, plans were clearly fulfilled as they took hold of the GC race on the first day in the mountains, delivering Chris Froome and Richie Porte to first and second on Saturday's stage, as well as the general classification. For others, like BMC, things went a-cropper as Cadel Evans lost four minutes and Tejay? Well, he should get used to fetching water bottles this Tour.

Grand plans and dashed hopes are not limited to the racing, though. As for me? I was going to get a GC preview up before GC action ever actually happened. Aaaaand, well, life gets meddlesome at times. But, we can still talk intelligently about the racing to come, for even after Sky's show of force on Saturday, affairs are far from settled. 12 days of racing still remains between here and Paris, and even if the top spot(s) are unlikely to change, there is a fight brewing for the podium and the white jersey. So, where do things stand, one week in?

Sitting Pretty

Chris Froome has the prettiest view from his seat right now, sitting some 1:25 in front of Alejandro Valverde, most of which was gained in the race's first summit finish atop the Ax 3 - Domaines climb on Saturday. Froome time trials better than his opponents, even garnering a bronze medal in the discipline at last year's Olympics, and has not shown any weakness on the climbs thus far, even when isolated from his teammates on Sunday. That said, Nairo Quintana's attacks were not all that serious with a 30 kilometer descent with a headwind to the finishing climb. Should Froome get isolated again, on a summit finish? Things might get interesting, we would be in uncharted territory.

But Froome isn't the only one who can be happy with their placing so far. Alejandro Valverde has proved the most durable of the other contenders, finishing third behind Froome atop Ax 3 - Domaines and marshaling his Movistar team around yesterday's bevy of climbs with authority. Valverde isn't afraid to attack and can descend fairly well too, so I wouldn't be surprised to see him giving it to Froome on a stage or two in the final week, especially when we climb Alpe d'Huez twice and have that harrowing descent of the Col de Sarenne.

Finally, we must note the duo of Belkin riders - Bauke Mollema and Laurens Ten Dam sitting in third and fourth overall now. Unlike the riders immediately behind them, they have looked in control on the climbs, if riding a slightly slower pace. When compared to their ambitions - which would likely be surpassed if either of them finished in the top five overall - their current position is most excellent. Chapeau, gentlemen.

Down, But Not Out

Oh Alberto Contador, what a difference a few years makes. The Spainard has won seven of his last eight grand tours, though some have been stripped due to a positive test for minute amounts of the banned substance Clenbuterol, a track record unmatched by anyone in this generation, and hardly from any era of cycling. But this year's Tour is not Contador's to crack. Last year we witnessed the sight of Chris Froome visibly tugging at the reigns, working for his team leader Bradley Wiggins on the climbs but clearly capable of riding faster on his own. This year, their places are taken by Roman Kreuziger and Contador. El Pisterelo has seemed to lack the last bits of form all year, and it is only amplified here. Will Bjarne Riis let Kreuziger have free reign in the latter stages? Right now, the Saxo Bank - Tinkoff riders are equal on time, so Contador will have to have a jour sans before that happens. Contador should pick up some form as the race goes on, but how late will it be? A podium is still in sight, but there are some people to distance before we can speculate about that.

Behind these riders are a bevy of climbers just biding their time until the final week when we see Mont Ventoux and the Alpes appear, and with them some of the most fiendish stages of this year's Tour. There is Nairo Quintana, who seems the only one with the potential to match Froome uphill now, and he is followed closely by Dan Martin, Joaquim Rodríguez, Rui Costa, and Mikel Nieve, all of whom are within 55 seconds of the Colombian prodigy. Of these five riders, Costa is the best time trialist, followed perhaps by Quintana or Dan Martin. Who will have the least bad day, or the worst day, among these five? If I had to pick, I'd guess Dan Martin will drop down the classification some along with Costa, who will be working in many stages for Valverde and Quintana. Nieve is a solid bet to climb higher and is past due a good overall result in a grand tour.

Oh, and should this be the place I mention that Andy Schleck is a mere four minutes back in 15th overall? For a former winner of the tour and multiple time podium finisher, this is disappointing, but the last year has not at all been normal for the Luxembourger. We have become accustomed to cheering when Schleck finishes a race (or mocking the more numerous times he has not) rather than seeing him at the front end of affairs as he was yesterday. No, Schleck won't win the Tour, nor will he reach the podium. But coming from behind as his form is, expect Andy to only improve as the race goes on. I would bet on him finishing in the top ten overall.

Au Revoir

You know, we almost made it through the first week without a bevy of GC hopefuls leaving France bruised, bandaged, broken, and otherwise unable to continue racing. We did not have the massive pileups of 2011 and 2012 that took out so many contenders or left them minutes behind and battered even before the first Cols were on the horizon. But then, Jurgen Van Den Broeck fell and hit his knee, hard. The following morning, the Lotto - Belisol team doctor drew 85cc of fluid from Van Den Broeck's knee. That's a lot, if you were wondering. Unable to even pedal easily on the rollers, the lanky Belgian is now at home and off the bike for a month or more, if not the remainder of the season, after suffering tears to several ligaments in the knee.

But the other major contenders survived the first week, rather astoundingly given the terrain and narrow roads on Corsica. Yet, we still find a few riders with no hopes of cracking the podium, or even the top ten, after a mere two days of racing from the GC favorites. For these guys, chances are over to impact the race, aside from working as teammates. The first to fall was Tejay van Garderen, the young BMC rider who finished fifth last year. A winner of this year's Tour of California in May, Van Garderen lost an almost incredulous 12 minutes on Saturday's Stage 8. Coming on the heels of a disappointing Tour de Suisse, where he was favored to win and inexplicably got dropped on most of the mountain stages, even van Garderen must be wondering what has gone so wrong so fast. Is it a mystery virus robbing him of strength? Those are pretty common around BMC, it seems. Or, is the heat just too much, despite training for it? Who knows, though we may get some answers in the second half of next week. While we're on the topic, maybe Cadel Evans will start making appearances near the front of the race again? Though, at over four minutes behind already and outside of the top 15, simply regaining a top-10 position would be a win for the former Tour champoin at this point.

After an incredible ride on Saturday, Sky's Richie Porte sat second in the general classification, but this would not last long. Movistar followed the early attacking by Garmin by attacking on the descent of the second climb yesterday, splitting the group of overall contenders with Porte between one and three minutes arrears for most of the day. After it became clear he could not match the power of Movistar's combined troops - especially after they received some help from Saxo Bank - and he received orders to sit up and conserve his energy for the task of helping Chris Froome in the two weeks to come. So much for a repeat of yesterday's 1-2 finish for Sky.

So that's where things stand now. The plot certainly seems to have some opportunities for reshuffling in the future, and whether Sky's weakness yesterday was a mere hiccup or portends troubles to come is a big determinant in how things shape up. We'll find out as we check in next week!

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