The long awaited, possibly soon-to-be-thoroughly-undermined, power poll for the heads of state. Obviously the biggest news has been Astana crashes and Mick Rogers' Icharus day, but we've also finished two of the six big mountain days with a surprising group of riders showing good legs and aggression. You could make a legitimate argument for winning it all about, oh, the first eleven guys on this list? The drama goes up and up...
1. Alejandro Valverde ↑
Valverde inherits this spot by virtue of his pedigree and the likelihood that, among the big stars, he looks undroppable. His negative riding sucks; for a guy with such a clouded fate in the Tour, you'd think he wouldn't want to be poking the Cycling Gods in the eye like he did yesterday. Not a horrible time trialist, and a better climber than Evans. So the race is his to lose, for now.
2. Cadel Evans ↑
Australia wept yesterday for its fallen sons, but this still might rank as the greatest Tour in Oz history, if Evans, the last man standing, climbs the top step in two weeks. Still, CN keeps naming him as someone who will benefit from the upcoming 110km of flat time trials. I don't agree, he's been successful in climbing ITTs and rolling ITTs... but not the flats. Compared to Sastre, for example, he probably will bang out a decent enough pace. If he and Valverde were even going into the Cognac ITT, I'd take Evans for the win. But if it's Cadel, and Levi, and Menchov... not so sure. And Valverde is a better climber than Evans. Cadel is sitting comfortably in the mix, climbing well and assertively yesterday. He's clearly a top fave.
3. Denis Menchov ↑
I spent a significant amount of time yesterday wondering if Menchov had been dropped. I couldn't see him, what with French TV switching from camera to camera like a hummingbird, and Phil & Paul must have mentioned him about twice. But he's right in the mix, not super aggressive (his "teammate" was up the road) but able to ride away from the Astana boys and put a little time into Leipheimer too. Also, if memory serves me, last time the Tour went through the Pyrenees -- where this race will probably be decided -- this guy was winning the biggest stage. As for the upcoming time trials, the three guys most likely to kick his ass just got hurt. He's probably better suited to the Race of Truth than the two guys above and below him here, though his record is muddled. Nobody feels great about Menchov as a winner, but he's another guy about whom you can craft a strong argument why he'll win.
4. Carlos Sastre ↔
Hm, nobody likes his chances in the time trials, which makes one wonder why he didn't try to do more yesterday. Is he, like Leipheimer, guarding his energy and strategy all for the Pyrenees, on the assumption that he can put gobs and gobs of time into his rivals then? Or is Sastre showing that old reticence to attack? If yesterday was all he can do on that type of stage, early in the race, then fine. But if he finished with something in the tank, then it's really poor strategy, given what he's risking on the flat ITTs. He may be the best climber on this list (besides Mayo and Rasmussen), but his poll position looks pretty tenuous to me.
5. Levi Leipheimer ↔
My Disco/Bruyneel rant will wait for the Teams poll due out Wednesday, but meanwhile Levi has had a too-quiet start to things. His comments yesterday suggest that was the best he could do. Either he's listening to Bruyneel's doubts, or it just wasn't his kind of climb. Levi does seem to think the Pyrenees will be better for him. And he is capable of a good time trial. And it's hard to argue with him when he says that he's focused more on the final week than the first one. And he hasn't lost any significant time, or wasted all that much energy. He hasn't impressed yet, but it's not clear to me that the master plan needs to be tossed.
6. Fränk Schleck ↑
Boy am I excited to see what happens in Albi (the first ITT, scheduled for Saturday), and Schleckie is one big reason why. He mailed it in last year in the Tour ITTs, losing over 5 minutes each time, but it's not clear if this is any real indication of his ability since he was riding in support and for stage wins. In fact, I'm not sure where to look to see if he can ride such races; his grand tour participations are minimal, he didn't show much at the Tour de Suisse (another poor predictor)... but he's strong, he should be able to turn in a decent time. If he does, and Sastre melts on the long, flat, hot roads, CSC could have a quarterback controversy. Bears watching...
7. Andrey Kashechkin ↑
Another head-scratcher. He was fabulous in last year's Vuelta as part of the Kazakh one-two, but his resume in riding grand tours for himself is wafer-thin. OTOH, he can kick out a fine time trial: he was second only to his boss in the Anneyron time trial at the Dauphine, ahead of guys like Zabriskie and David Millar, as well as the usual GC suspects. Will he get the go-signal? It's possible that Vino and Klöden will get killed on the big climbs tomorrow, which will put Sunday's to shame. By Albi, Kashechkin could be riding for himself, and the glory of Kazakhstan. He's another real danger-man, albeit more untested than the guys above him here.
8. Alexandre Vinokourov ↓
It's better to burn out than fade away, but apparently Neil Young doesn't translate into one of the many languages Vinokourov speaks. He's leaking a handful of minutes here and there as he struggles to put his body back together... not enough to snuff his chances by any means though. The big "if" is tomorrow... these climbs will exaggerate the difference between the lesser (or less healthy) and the stronger, so Vino and his traveling secretary Klöden might be done in 24 hours. BUT! If not, and he's feeling OK on Saturday, he can vault himself right back into contention among the rather motley crew of time trialists seeking yellow in this time-trial-heavy Tour.
9. Christophe Moreau ↑
Gotta love le Tongue. He's lost none of his aggressiveness since the Dauphine and the French National Championships last month. It's almost as if he's riding angrily to recoup the honor of French cycling after a decade of losing to guys on EPO. I'm naive enough to believe that racing is getting cleaner before our eyes, which is one reason why Christophe Moreau -- a C-lister in past years -- is suddenly able to hang around the front of the Tour. His attacking style will likely run out eventually, and my betting is that he'll be more tired than his opponents in the Pyrenees, after five weeks on the rampage. His time trialing is nothing special, though that seems to be a prerequisite for contention this year.
10. The Chicken ↑
Among the places where the ~:> is hard to watch are descents and time trials. Tomorrow is a net-downhill course, with over 100km of descending including the last 38km, so cross that one off. 54km of time trialing in Albi should be an unmitigated disaster. One of the three Pyrenean stages is a downhill finish, so cross that off too. And then there's the final time trial (ditto as above). That leaves two stages in the Pyrenees where he needs to pad his advantage enough to cover all of his other, um, issues. He showed everyone who's boss on the climbs yesterday, and the yellow jersey can be hard to take off a guy's back, but this is a bad, bad course for the Chicken.
11. Iban Mayo ↑
Well now... we've had a few years' worth of disdain for the former next-great-Basque-champion, but hey, these things happen. Cyclists routinely lose chunks of their career to physical and personal impediments. What counts is that a guy is young, healthy, confident, well-supported, and race-fit. Mayo won't be 30 for another month, and just got done climbing the bejeezus out of the Alps. Unlike in years past, he seems somewhat liberated from the intense pressure to win, though that will turn around in a hurry if he's riding alone through a parting sea of Basque fans next week. Saunier Duval looked at the start like a headless horse, but now Mayo can count on David de la Fuente and JJ Cobo for competent help. He's not exactly known for the time trials, but if we're seeing the return of 2003 Iban, he wasn't horrible then, losing 2' to the winners in the final, rainy ITT where Lance put Ullrich out of his misery, better than Sastre and Menchov and a few others managed that day. Slack-jawed shock will be the order of the day in Paris if he climbs the top step, but right now, the numbers don't lie.
12. Alberto Contador ↑
More of a what-if contender. We'll know a lot more on Saturday, but he's ahead of his purported captain for now and a decent bet to stay that way in Albi. Hopefully Disco will eventually decide on a pecking order, but the Accountant is a brilliant enough climber, headed toward his homeland in perfect position, to dismiss from overall glory.
13. Andreas Klöden ↓
Is working for Vino the best use of Klödi's battered body? If he can't win the overall, as he seems to believe, one wonders whether he shouldn't shut down for a week or so, then come back and wreak some terrible vengeance on the Deutschland Tour, or maybe the Vuelta. Then again, if the only way to heal a broken coccxyx is to get off the bike for so long that his form will disappear, then maybe slogging it out heroically at the Tour for Vino is the best he can do. See comments in threads below for the LeMond-Hinault pact concept. Vino is more likely to keep his promises than Hinault, but only if he isn't still thirsting for that first win.
14. Linus Gerdemann ↔
Takes the reins. He's been a feel-good story, one of the more outspoken anti-doping voices out there, which means his victory Saturday is a positive message about winning clean. It was also a huge effort from which he won't soon recover, and he should be in the distance on the mega-climbs tomorrow. But he won't be forgotten.
15. Haimar Zubeldia ↔
Technically in contention, 4' back, just like every year. He's headed home to the Pyrenees too. Nobody thinks he'll win, but if they forget about him, there could be big trouble.