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Focus on the Favorites: Carlos Sastre

The most, um, memorable moment from last year's Tour de France parcours rollout "celebration" was when the Tour organizers showed a film of the last race, ending with a picture of Floyd Landis, which was then treated to a 1970s-era cracked-mirror special effect. By the time they were done rolling out the 2007 race details, they could have put up a picture of Carlos Sastre and run the effects machine again. Nobody among the favorites got dealt a worse hand that day.

Or so goes the conventional wisdom: Carlos Sastre can't win a race tilted toward the time trialists. Not that he has a huge body of work to drawn on, but there's support for this notion: last year's Tour was the second or third grand tour where Sastre was given the reins... but the first time in France. So while he had solid results in the 2005 Vuelta time trials, they really don't count. The Tour is where a rider's strength is measured, and the 2006 Tour was the only one where he rode for himself. There, he held his own in the bumpy Rennes ITT, losing two minutes to Gonchar but only one minute to Landis. In the second ITT to Montceau-les-Mines, the gap to Gonchar was 4.42 over another rolling course.

But how terrible was it? Sastre lost a minute to Dave Zabriskie, Cadel Evans, and German ITT champ Bert Grabsch. He was within ten seconds of Denish Menchov and former world ITT champ Michael Rogers. He could be forgiven for running on fumes, given that he'd also done the Giro d'Italia as part of his original program in service of Ivan Basso. So while he lost his podium on this penultimate day, Sastre could still hold his head high.

There is no question as to Carlos' game: he is a man for the mountains. Not a flashy, swashbucking attacker like Vinokourov or his teammate Frank Schleck, but a rider who wins in the climbs by attrition. On Alpe d'Huez he finished ninth, among the heads of state a minute back of Schleck and Damiano Cunego. The next day, as Landis melted on the La Toussuire climb, Sastre was second only to soloist Michael Rasmussen. In the last mountain stage Sastre was again second to another long breakaway... by Landis. Of all the favorites, Carlos Sastre was the only one to ride commandingly every single day.

But he is clearly vulnerable in the time trials, particularly the flat ones, and that's what the Tour has dished up to the peloton this year. The Albi time trial on stage 13 has a slight rise to it in places, but the final ITT to Angouleme is really just flat. The two days will total 109 km, more than enough time for significant gaps to open up between the pure ITT riders and the smaller climbers. Had the Tour opted for one of the races agains the clock to be a team time trial, nobody would have benefited more than Sastre. Had they even made one of the ITTs an uphill ride, Sastre would have a solid chance of keeping his time trial losses well within reasonable limits. The Tour includes such stages; in 2004 they had both. In 2005 and 2006, the ITTs had plenty of rollers to shrink his disadvantage. Any of the above scenarios would make Sastre a solid choice this year.

No such luck. Sastre cannot be discounted this year, with the benefit of a program that, for once, called on him to preserve his energy for France. If the others all falter in the mountains, just once each, Sastre will have a shot at limiting his time trial deficits to manageable levels, but just a shot. At 32, Sastre is heading into the latter stages of his prime. Should next year's course truly favor the climbers, or include a team event, he might still taste the glory. But this year it likely isn't in the cards.