Look, I know that you know who the competitors for the yellow jersey are. You've studied the sport, subscribed to Cycling.TV, and put together your Virtual DS squad. You don't need me to tell you that a lotta people think Floyd Landis knows how to ride a bike. But we've been dancing around this conversation for about three months now, and it's time.
One note: as much as I love a good comment thread, I think it'd be great for people to use the diaries and make the case for why so-and-so is the pick. If you've got a case to make in more than 45 words, Diary it and I'll promote it.
Without further ado... in no particular order... on the flip:
Vlad Karpets, Caisse d'Epargne
Dennis Menchov, Rabobank
Two Russians who can time trial... I'm lumping them together because I have no ability to distinguish between their chances. Seriously, what's the difference? They both excel against the watch, they'll both struggle to hang on a bit in the climbs. They even come with the same level of inter-squad ambiguity: Karpets could be overshadowed by Valverde, while Menchov may be Rabo's GC guy and still have to fight with Rasmussen and Freire for support.
Outlook: Top 10... for one of them.
Paco Mancebo, AG2R
Not a good course for him: he's a mountain man, and more of a solid-not-special time trialer. That said, he was fourth last year overall, a really great result, and scored tenth in the final ITT, just shy of Hincapie and ahead of Karpets and Leipheimer, among others. By failing to win either the climbs or time trials, he doesn't seem to get the attention he merits. But in another year he'd be a solid choice for a podium spot. Another factor: even finishing fourth last year, his time nine minutes back put him much closer to the second tier challengers (Landis, Leipheimer, etc) than to Lance and Basso... and the second-tier crowd has been working hard.
Outlook: Top five
Cadel Evans, Davitamon
Clearly peaking, in terms of his career arc, and his win at the Tour de Romandie was most encouraging: here's a climber whose time trialing has really solidified. Eigth in the Tour's final 55km ITT last year, only 90 seconds back of Ullrich. But the Romandie ITT win (that won him the overall victory) was a mere 22km, not really indicative of his ability to place high on a course more than twice the length... on two occasions. Still plenty to prove as a second-tier contender.
Outlook: top 8
The Non-Hincapie Disco Boys
First man out: Jose Azevedo. Losing six minutes at St. Etienne last year, when he wasn't saving his strength to work for Lance, means he won't like this course. Next out: Paolo Savoldelli. Even assuming his problem at the Giro was allergies, and assuming those allergies have cleared up... he's still a good time trialer/decent climber, with not enough of either to seriously challenge. Think about it: if Basso's big problem is recovering from the Giro, why would Savoldelli -- who wasn't in Basso's league last month and is six years older -- have a prayer? I love the guy as a rider, and there's nothing that would make this race for me more than seeing him gamely hang on over the Joux-Plane, then fly the coop for the stage win on the descent to Morzine. But that's it. Last out: Popovych. Another Russian who can time trial. I just dunno... I think they keep him under wraps anyway.
Outlook: Top 8 for Popo; that's it.
George Hincapie, Disco
He's been posting excellent time trials for two years now, so the whole conversion thing isn't exactly a joke. The problem is that it's hard to imagine him under pressure on the climbs for three straight days in the Alpes without a bad moment, where he loses ten minutes. Yeah, I'm sure he can climb now. But can he climb, recover, climb, recover, climb, recover...?
Outlook: Top 6
Levi Leipheimer, Gerolsteiner
The winner of the Dauphine Libere... more of a true climber, and the ITTs have been difficult for him on occasion, though he took third in the Dauphine's 43 km time trial. He's running out of chances, but then his ceiling is more like a podium than yellow. He could win a ton of short stage races, but he always seems to have a bad day at the Tour.
Outlook: Top 5
Floyd Landis, Phonak
Another aging American looking to make the Leap. The difference between him and Leipheimer is that this course is perfect for him. Landis has been great in the time trials, especially the flatter ones. He's been Ullrich-lite, and has shown some improvement in his climbing as well, matching Tom Danielson in Georgia. Very nearly the whole package, and despite the Dauphine I'm betting he's going to peak for the Tour.
Alejandro Valverde, Caisse d'Epargne
Probably will win a Tour in his lifetime, if he wants. He has a lot of work to do on his time trials, which will relegate him from serious contender status this year. But his climbing is magnificent, and even after he blows five minutes in the first ITT, he may still be one of the most-talked-about riders at the race this year.
Outlook: Top six
Alexandre Vinokourov, Astana
Obviously the scandal makes him a true wild card. But last seen he was third in the final ITT at St. Etienne, after only Lance and Jan. He might have made the podium last year if he hadn't blown himself in the mountains. But with a team behind him (ahem), a better course, and some added wisdom, he's a real threat. Let's see how he is at blocking out distraction though...
Outlook: top 5
Jan Ullrich, T-Mobile
It all seems to be there for him, one last shot at the glory that seemed like his birthright, over a course that plays directly to his strengths. Basso is coming off an emotional win which presumably cost him a ton of energy, while Ullrich is following his "plan" to perfection. His trademark horrible luck hasn't reared its head yet (although I would advise him not to drink from his little daughter's cup this week). It's all there for him. And yet, as fine a racer as he is, as much as I'd like to see him win, there's just one rider I don't think he can touch.
Ivan Basso, Team CSC
Continuing that last thought... his climbing was dominant at the Giro, and his time trialing nearly so. They say the double is hard, but he did it last year and was sensational at the Tour, after a Giro that was less successful but no less difficult for him. So I expect him to be at his best, and if he is... forget the team conflicts, Riis vs. JB, the pressure, etc. It's this simple: I no longer believe it's possible for him to lose as much time in the time trials as he's going to gain on Ullrich and others in the mountains.