Contrary to popular belief, Fabian Cancellara has not won every single time trial he's ever entered, nor has he won all of the Tour de France time trials in the modern era. OK, he could win virtually every single prologue you can think of, short of a mountain course (Alpe d'Huez Grand Depart, anyone?). But before we go cloaking him in yellow for tomorrow night, let's take stock of reality.
The one overwhelming bit of reality is that Cancellara, the world time trial champion and a man on form, is the favorite to win. Let's get that right out into the open.
The next factor are the conditions:
Weather report calls for cool weather and cloudy skies, with winds out of the west at 13mph. This is nearly an out-and-back course, meaning headwinds for til the first time check, crosswinds for the middle 7km, and a tailwind all the way home. Presumably gains made in the early part will stick, as riders benefit from the winds. But whether the winds are different over the day may determine the stage winner. Say Magnus Backstedt, starting early, gets a more favorable wind than the later riders... could at least mess with the day's results. Anyway, however the winds go, this is a non-technical, pure power course. UPDATE: Profiles are notoriously inaccurate, and lots of info in the comments suggest the course is more rolling than flat. No major climbs though; just a question of whether the rollers will inhibit the power guys from establishing a tempo. Cancellara included.
All of that still looks good for Cancellara (though I wish there was a website out there which divided the peloton into hot-weather and cold-weather guys, for obvious reasons). But to take yellow, he has to overcome the leaders from today's breakaway -- which should be no problem, given the toll of today's win and the fact that all of them could lose three minutes to Fabian on a good day -- and he has to slightly outperform some other guys who just might get in his way:
- David Millar: This morning I mentioned to a coworker that Millar's time trial prowess dates back to his unclean days more than anything else. But the results show that Millar is still a threat in a shorter event. He dropped gobs of time on the 50km+ mega-chronos at the Tour last year, but aside from the Giro's first ITT he's been very competitive in the 20-30km range.
- Jose Ivan Gutierrez: Not sure what's up with him lately as his performances haven't been great -- he lost his Spanish chrono title to Luis Leon Sanchez -- but it's possible he's lying in wait. Anyway, Gutierrez finished ahead of Cancellara at both Tour de France ITTs last year, and is generally very threatening at this distance.
- Cadel Evans: The odds-on favorite to win the Tour, I don't think you'll see him in yellow tomorrow. He's laying low, smartly and conservatively, and his time trialing isn't any better than the other names here at this distance. Evans kills guys in the 50+-km races, where only the truly strong survive. But having less of an advantage and more of a reason to guard his efforts, I'd put him a few seconds out of yellow -- his preferred position.
- George Hincapie: Hincapie is hard to figure: he's put up respectable times in virtually every kind of time trial you can think of, save the climbers' specials. Cholet is presumably no problem for him. And he too beat Cancellara in both ITTs last July. I'd look for George to target this race, given the depth of his team and his otherwise minimal chances at a stage win.
- Sammy Sanchez: I know, here I go again. But he won on a nearly identical course in the Vuelta last year. Even beat Menchov.
- Stijn Devolder: Speaking of the Vuelta, it was his performance in the first time trial there that launched all this nonsense about him contending for a grand tour. In this year alone, he's won at the same distance (Algarve) and a shorter distance (Ronde van Belgie). Also won the Austrian Tour ITT on a comparable course. Lots of top-10s. But rarely on the biggest stage.
- Others: Thomas Lovkvist (white jersey in his sights); Denis Menchov (price to pay for today's chasing?); Andy Schleck; Maxime Monfort; Vincenzo Nibali; and a host of guys who could win the stage but are too far back to take yellow.
I'd still go with the World Champion until further notice. He showed up a little gassed at the Tour last year, and quickly lost his form by the midpoint of the race. This year, he skipped the Giro and didn't start approaching his summer peak until the end of the Tour de Suisse. So I would guess Tony Spartacus is primed to take the maillot jaune tomorrow. But the race will be hotly contested, just like the first three days.
Oh and... one last note. The course is on the fringe of the Vendee region, the home to Bouygues Telecom and source of many of its riders, for reasons bordering on overwrought regionalism. Look for highly motivated rides from the Bweegs. But alas, this is the race of truth, not the race of high motivations.