Every Tour de France has its surprising performances, and the two which stand out this time are Riccardo Riccò and Christian VandeVelde. Two guys who rode fantastically in the Pyrenees, and you can make an argument that either one of them is best positioned to steal this Tour from Cadel Evans. That's where the similarities end.
VandeVelde has put in a decade of hard, effective work, nearly all of which was done in support of someone else's ambitions. In the binary world of American Pro Tour cyclists you've either bagged a Tour podium or seven... or you're nobody. But to anyone (like Jonathan Vaughters) who bothered to pay attention, his results have been solid and slowly improving.
Despite working for the CSC machine, VandeVelde has posted decent finishes in the high mountains of the Tour over the past three years. He also has a long history of strong time trials: 19th at the final Tour ITT last year (impressive after three weeks of domestique work); 15th and 5th at the two flat Giro ITTs, and a win at the Circuit de la Sarthe this spring, to go with two team TTT wins. It's been interesting watching him slowly evolve into captaincy of a major team -- a game of confidence that few ex-domestiques win. Not that he's mastered it: over at VN he's saying he regrets holding back yesterday, where a more aggressive posture might have had him in yellow now. Then again, most of his 38-second deficit occurred at Super-Besse, where he attacked the heads of state and lost 27" after they reeled him in. There's no telling what he'll do in the Alps, but his history of dropping 5-15 minutes has more to do with his domestique duties than anything else.
Riccò, meanwhile, is the natural -- literally: after being held out of the pro circuit for unacceptable blood values, he got sent to the lab in 2005 to prove that he has a normal hematocrit level in excess of 50%. He was born to climb, and seems to be extending that prowess from lower Italian roads to the summits of the Tour de France. At age 24 he's already been handed the reins of a Pro Tour outfit, and while he's rubbed plenty of his coworkers the wrong way, he's also delivered on his promise from the get-go. Riccò won the demanding Tre Cime di Lavaredo stage of the Giro in 2007, along with two more stages and the maglia blanca this year. He regularly lashed out at the peloton, including Alberto Contador, on the hardest climbs of a hard Giro, only losing the big prize through some unwatchable time trialing form. His two wins of the Tour don't come without caveats -- both were on (or just after) cat-2 climbs, which are a different animal than what's coming in the Alps. But the Tour hasn't seen a lot of pure climbers lately, so Riccò's sudden ascendancy is welcomed (if you don't despise him).
There are a lot of stories left to play out in this Tour, but most have to do with whether one known quantity (e.g., Sastre, Menchov, etc) can surpass another known quantity (Evans) in time for Paris. Riccò and VandeVelde, the young natural and the veteran grinder, are by contrast the two most exciting developments left to watch.