Each year it becomes more of a challenge to find an original way to talk about who might win the Tour de France. After racking my brain, I'd decided on a tale-of-the-tape scoring system. Of course, even that isn't truly original -- Cycle Sport is doing one. But then, their method is 50% serious, 50% crap like "media friendliness" and "sprinting" so onward and upward.
My rating system consists of four categories: climbing, time trialing, intangibles and team. The first three are scored 1-5, while team strength is weighted less, on a 1-3 scale. Yes, a good team helps, but Greg LeMond won singlehandedly in 1989 against the Cyrille Guimard machine. It happens. Anyway, these numbers aren't especially "scientific," or "meaningful." You'll have to sign up for Podium Cafe Premium if you want real numbers.
1. Cadel Evans
A clear favorite; no real weakness, plenty of history. It just feels like his turn.
Climbing: 4 He does things at his own pace, and can be vulnerable on the worst climbs, e.g. Alpe d'Huez. But he's also made strides in the mountains and seems stronger than ever this year. I wouldn't count on him blowing up anyplace.
Time Trialing: 5 The undisputed ace, at least for the final ITT. No serious dispute about this. Among the favorites, only Menchov and Sanchez have vaguely similar track records.
Intangibles: 5 Right age, right experience, and he's even turned around his one weakness -- too much patience -- with some noticeably more aggressive riding. He's the one guy on this list who looks thoroughly ready to lead the world's biggest race.
Team: 2 They signed Popovych, possibly the world's greatest teammate, to deal with his other glaring weakness, but Popo hasn't been used much, and the rest of the team is returning from last year's uninspiring lot. I'm not sold yet.
2t. Denis Menchov
One of only two guys on the list who's won a grand tour before. This is a pretty good course for him, but only if he doesn't explode anywhere. Like, say, on Alpe d'Huez.
Climbing: 4 He's usually excellent, though there seem to be some climbs that are simply too much. I don't want to be overly critical of the guy who won the key Pyrenean stages of the 2007 Vuelta and the 2006 Tour, but he can't have any classicly bad days in the Alpes.
Time Trialing: 4 OTOH, I don't want to be overly complimentary here. Sure, he's time-trialed his way to two Vuelta wins -- not too shabby -- but his Tour record is decidedly meh. Relative to this list, he's a good chronoman. Not great.
Intangibles: 3.5 He's two completely different guys in Spain versus France. Last year he was patron-like in his commanding Vuelta win, but in the Tour he seemed far less confident. Anyway, few others have seen as much as he has, and with no dominant personalities you might see a more macho Mencho this time.
Team: 2 Rabo have a nice lineup, but a history of strange behavior, not to mention too many priorities. Also, why no Gesink???
2t. Carlos Sastre
Veteran Tour ringer looking for one last chance for glory. Sastre always seems to find his way out of the podium, but not without looking awfully dangerous for a while.
Climbing: 4.5 His career has been built on long alpine ascents. Last year his work in this area was surprisingly undistinguished, but he's had too many good days to downgrade him on the basis of 2007 alone.
Time Trialing: 3 I think there's this image of him being a terrible chronoman because he's lost a place or two in the final ITT in past Tours. He isn't terrible. It's just that he's not as good as the best guys. If he goes into the last weekend with 2' on Evans for yellow, he'll hold it.
Intangibles: 3 Good guy, though maybe not enough of a killer. He's very experienced, but has never seemed to break through. Hopefully we'll see the more aggressive, 2006 version this year.
Team: 3 CSC are always a force. The only question is who the leader is. For now it's Sastre, but he's already looking over his shoulder.
2t. Sammy Sanchez
One of my favorite riders around... hard to be completely objective here. Also his season has been spent entirely in the shadows, ostensibly training for this one big moment. I don't blame him; with Contador sidelined, and with his age north of 30, it's as good a chance as he'll ever get. Is this really his first-ever Tour?? Problem.
Climbing: 3.5 More of a classics climber than a pure Alpine mountain goat. He has had plenty of success in the Vuelta climbs... but that's not the same thing.
Time Trialing: 4.5 Outstanding at TTs in the 20-30km range, even better than Evans. But he loses half a point to Cadel here, since whatever advantage he gets in the first TT he'll give back and more in the last one.
Intangibles: 3 The Tour simply isn't the Vuelta, so it's hard to say how prepared he is for this. But Sanchez can be very aggressive when he's on form, and there are some places where his unreal descending skills could be a huge asset. He seems focused as well.
Team: 2.5 You might notice that I docked half a point from the 3 I give Zubeldia, from the same team. For now, Zubeldia's the captain, Samu is plan B. Still, this is the best squad Euskaltel have assembled in a long time.
5. Alejandro Valverde
These scores are probably the most conservative of any given. Unlike the rest of the guys here, you could make an argument for Valverde placing at any of the top ten spots.
Climbing: 4 Seems like his strength, but in the last Tour stage he dropped 2' to Evans on the Col d'Aubisque. And was worse the two previous days. My guess is he'll do well in the mountains this time around, perhaps really well, but you never know.
Time Trialing: 3 Seems like his weakness, but today is the two week anniversary of the Dauphine ITT, which he won. A single result of that nature can't undo a spotty history of Tour chronos, but he's also at the age where top stage racers often show improvement against the watch. Very intriguing.
Intangibles: 3 He gets labeled a Tour disappointment, for his hard-luck abandonments and unspectacular results, but I'm coming around on the guy. Think of all he's been through: the ridiculous expectations, the endless doping allegations, the constant pressure to win, the disappointments (e.g., 2006 Vuelta ridden at the last minute, and stolen from him by two doping Kazakhs). Yet he just won his second Liege monument, along with two of the three stage races he's entered this year, Murcia and the Dauphine. Maybe in a sense he's El Imbatible after all.
Team: 3 Don't get me started gushing about these guys again. I did that before the Giro and nearly got them all killed. Probably the deepest, most dynamic squadra at the Tour, though without the grand tour track record (yet) (and yes, I remember that Pereiro was anointed the 2006 winner.)
6t. Kim Kirchen
Eh... what to say? Of all the classics studs on this list trying to make the leap to grand tour success, only Kirchen and Valverde can say they've done it, to some degree. Kirchen's 7th place in the 2007 Tour, just behind Valverde, was unexpected, but came after an amazing spring campaign. Well, he just had another great spring...
Climbing: 3.5 Kirchen is a Tour mountain stage winner, after Vinokourov was deleted from Stage 15 last year. But he was allowed to escape by the heads of state, and his other performances were decidedly mixed. He can climb, and after last year he's probably better prepared for a real GC run. But I wouldn't call him a natural mountain goat.
Time Trialing: 3.5 Unlike his climbing, Kirchen is more consistent as a time trialer -- not consistently great, but unlike his nearest competitors he's shown the ability to handle a long, loooong ITT at the end of a Tour.
Intangibles: 3.5 I don't feel like I know him at all, but he's just 30, and has a pretty good background for the Tour with three attempts, including two Tours during his Fassa Bortolo days, and at least two Tour Espoirs events. He's as ready as anyone on the list, save Evans.
Team: 2 Also deep and talented, Columbia haven't said yet who's on their roster. [Update: yes they have.] Kirchen may have to fight for help from the sprinters' squad. Hincapie is pretty likely, giving Kirchen at least one ideal teammate.
6t. Damiano Cunego
The Kid, a/k/a Happy Puppy (though don't ask me why)... Few riders attract more attention. Lance is on record saying there's no way he can win, but Cunego, like some others here, is smart to give it a shot during Contador's temporary absence. He's only done the Tour once before, winning the maillot blanc in 2006.
Climbing: 4 That 2006 prize was due largely to his second place on the Alpe d'Huez stage. We've seen him struggle on some of the steepest climbs, so he's more of an elite Classics-type than a pure grimpeur, but he definitely won't embarass himself if he's on form.
Time Trialing: 2.5 Heh... uh... he's had some real stinkers in the past, but it's not a complete lost cause. He's done decently in shorter-distance events, as well as anything with a hill. Also, he's reaching the age where maybe he can improve. But Lance has a point: he's pretty small, which can be a problem on a windy, 50km flat course.
Intangibles: 4 Besides Menchov, he's the only guy on the list with a grand tour in his pocket. Granted, it was out of the blue, and he hasn't done anything to dissuade us from calling it a fluke. But he is focused, not inexperienced, and as ready as he'll ever be.
Team: 2 I like some of the guys they're talking about including, like Ballan and Bruseghin. Not sure what the final lineup will be, and he won't need a lot of escorts anyway.
6t. Haimar Zubeldia
Fifth place last year was a mark of consistency and steady improvement for Zubeldia, the only rider whose name is always on the front page of the Podium Cafe. With a better team, he could really make a move this year. I'll believe it when it happens.
Climbing: 4 His strength... he's more of a mountain goat than Sanchez, with top 10 finishes at various Pyrenean and Alpine stages. The next time he launches a huge attack on the leaders will be the first time, as far as I can remember. But Euskaltel have the chance to ride a more aggressive race this year.
Time Trialing: 2.5 Meh. Pretty thoroughly mediocre.
Intangibles: 3 I'll plead the fifth... he doesn't get enough coverage for me to really have a sense of him. Experienced... right age. Help?
Team: 3 I've already said 4-5 times how they have a great team. They have a great team. There. Happy?
9t. Maricio Soler
Burst onto the scene last year. This time, people are watching.
Climbing: 5 Possibly the one true mountain goat of the race. He flew up the peaks last year, more than once. Nobody doubts his strength here.
Time Trialing: 2 Not good. Between the two ITTs at the 2007 Tour, he dropped over ten minutes. On the one hand, that's a great way to launch a drive for the mountains jersey -- eviscerating your GC hopes before the first climb. But this year will have to be different if he's to make a run at the overall.
Intangibles: 2 Young and talented, but not especially experienced. We've seen plenty of guys burst onto the scene from the ranks of the newcomers, only to return with some pressure, and fall off the map. Soler didn't seem overly interested at the Giro, which is understandable, but I just don't think he's going to make the leap quite yet.
Team: 2.5 One of the more intriguing teams out there, Barloworld will flank Soler with Moises Duenas and Felix Cardenas, while still pursuing sprints.
9t. Frank Schleck
Seems to be touted as CSC's Tour guy as much out of some sort of rotation -- it's his turn -- than because of evidence he's well-suited to the race. He does lots of things well, but in Le Tour??
Climbing: 3 One day he's winning on Alpe d'Huez, the next he's out the back. I'd rate him as one of the guys you'll see lagging behind the heads of state on most finishing climbs. Not blowing up, but not able to match the best.
Time Trialing: 3 More of the same: not embarassing himself, but nothing to get excited about.
Intangibles: 3 Well, he's older than Andy. He's got a couple Tours under his belt.
Team: 2.5 Like Sanchez, he loses half a point for being plan B. Unlike Sanchez, he'll probably remain plan B.
11. Ricardo Ricco
Included as more of a bellwether than a serious threat. Best case scenario is that he and Soler both completely suck in the first time trial, and stage one of the better polka-dot jersey battles in recent memory.
Climbing: 5 Excellent. He can't just fly away from the heads of state whenever he wants, but unlike some of the other Classics guys here, he's shown plenty of ability to launch late escapes and gain small advantages. Unless his form is stale after the Giro, he shouldn't get shelled out of the Tour climbs.
Time Trialing: 1 All that's missing from his chrono resume is an in-race bike toss. So far he's only tossed his bike during road stages.
Intangibles: 2 Eh... what's the over-under on him claiming he got pulled off the beach to race the Tour? I say 7am tomorrow.
Team: 1 Gawd-awful all year. You'd expect more, and maybe they'll get fired up. But I think having Ricco as captain hasn't done much for unity.
So there you go. Should be fun to see how these ratings hold up over time. In general they show a very, very tight race for spots 2-10, though Evans is predictably a strong favorite. This is a lot of info, which means the likelihood of errors is pretty high, so comment and/or correct away.