The overall contest at the World's Fourth Greatest Stage Race* has opened up a can of whoop-ass on the conventional wisdom and surely has Swiss fans in a complete tizzy. By the final ITT, organizers of the race, who almost certainly gamed the course to elevate Fabian Cancellara's prospects, may well have stopped functioning entirely. This sucker is coming down to the wire, and the Ultimate Hero of Swiss Cycling is going to be the main attraction. What makes all this so fascinating is Cancellara's tenuous placing, and the absolute proliferation of time trialists lurking around the top ten. Let's run it down...
1. Fabian Cancellara
Prior Utterances: "But I do wonder if the amount of time available in the first and last time trials is getting pretty close to the time gaps available in the climbs? If Cancellara can survive the long, slow climb back to Davos, then he's got a chance of holding his position from the ITT (yellow?) at least to the end of stage 4. Stage 5 would require him to hang on by his fingernails, and stages 7-8 would again see him limiting his losses to something he can recoup in the final ITT."
Has He Got the Cheese? Oh my yes. Cancellara did more than limit his losses in the so-called Queen Stage today, he put time into guys like Andy Schleck and nearly took the stage. His 6" bonus means he sits a mere 14" back of the lead. With two more climbing stages left -- both of which are long, flat or descending crawls to a final climb of questionable consequence -- one wonders if Cancellara will even surrender time at all before the final ITT. If not, this sucker is O-V-E-R.
Tourbeccow Says: [Mooing excitedly]
2. Andreas Klöden
Prior Utterances: "Assuming Andy Schleck won't come out to play, then the biggest threats are Andreas Klöden, Kim Kirchen and Frank Schleck. Frankie is a crap cronoman, but Kirchen and Klöden are probably superior to Kreuziger in that discipline..."
Has He Got the Cheese? For second place? Sure. There is nothing left on the menu that should trouble Klödi in the slightest, so his prospect are simply a matter of where he goes into the final ITT vis-a-vis Cancellara. If he has the lead, there's a strong chance of him hanging on -- it's not an entirely flat event -- but no way in hell does Klödi make up a gap.
Tourbeccow Says: "My mom taught me not to say anything if you have nothing nice to say."
3. Roman Kreuziger
Prior Utterances: "so the young Czech will have to win the race on the climbs."
Has He Got the Cheese? Meh. Liquigas are in a pickle. Surely they know Zaugg is going to get crushed in the final ITT, but can they resist the temptation to ride for him the next two days when he's sitting a mere 14" out and riding rather well? If no, then they've blown it, because Kreuziger isn't going to win this race on Sunday. He needs to get aggressive beforehand in the two finishing climbs and put time into people like Klöden and Cancellara if he's to survive the final stage. Of course, they could just as easily see this as an opportunity: send Kreuziger up the road and see if people will chase the guy who's 42" back even if they have to tow along the higher-placed Zaugg. But if I were a rival DS, I would look at Zaugg's crono history and lock in on Kreuziger.
Tourbeccow Says: "I had high hopes for him. Maybe he can win the best-foreigner competition?"
4. Tony Martin
Prior Utterances: "Dekker and Martin can clearly throw down in the cronos."
Has He Got the Cheese? Really, who has had more cheese this week than the young German? I haven't watched every stage, so it's possible there were long periods when he wasn't up to something, but not as far as I know. Of course, that admirable energy didn't stop him from blowing a minute in yesterday's descent, a golden opportunity that would have him in the pole position today. Kids! You can shout til you're blue in the face, but will they listen? Anyway, I have him a notch above some of the equally awesome ITT'ers on this list simply because he's ridden so well this week. Look for him on about 40 VDS teams in 2010...
Tourbeccow Says: "Again with the Germans. [silence]"
5. Gustav Larsson
Prior Utterances: "Larsson is like Cancellara only with a fair bit more fortitude in the climbs."
Has He Got the Cheese? Whoa -- yeah. It's tempting to look at Saxo and say "oh, Andy isn't racing for the win. And Fabian will lose it on Crans-Montana. And Frank can't time trial. All that work for nothing." But quietly tucked away at the lower range of the top ten is the Olympic Silver Medalist in the ITT, who has to be drooling over Sunday's rolling course. Everyone else on this list has to be ahead of Cancellara by a noticeable margin going into the starthouse Sunday if they want the title. But Larsson -- if he and Cance are simply even, we've got a hell of a race.
Tourbeccow Says: "I can't think of a better story than Larsson, the fellow time trialist, towing our Fabian safely up Crans-Montana."
6. Tadej Valjavec
Prior Utterances: [crickets]
Has He Got the Cheese? Sort of. Thanks to the breakaway he has 42" on Kreuziger, so if Cancellara falls away before the ITT, it's a matter of whether Valjavec can make those 42" or more last against the onslaught of superior cronomen, starting with guys like Kreuziger who are a little better, to guys like Larsson, Martin, Monfort, etc. who are a lot better. But Valjavec is no slouch -- Zaugg won't touch him, and Kreuziger may not claw back that deficit either. So much intrigue... Sunday could be one of the most suspenseful time trials I can remember.
Tourbeccow Says: "It's been awfully cute having a French team holding the jersey. I hope that makes them feel good."
7. Maxime Monfort
Prior Utterances: [more crickets]
Has He Got the Cheese? Heck yeah. Thanks to the exploits of the Everyday Boys, who may appear at times to have about 15 guys on the road, Monfort has sailed along with barely a notice as his illustrious teammates control matters. Honestly, I haven't seen him even once. All I know are the numbers: he's right next to Martin and Larsson on GC, he beat Larsson in the opening ITT, and he has a pretty clear history of rocking the cronos. Seriously, if you're not drooling over Sunday's stage, then I have nothing further to say to you.
Tourbeccow Says: "As a Belgian we share an appreciation for fine chocolate, no?"
8. Oliver Zaugg
Prior Utterances: [obvious crickets]
Has He Got the Cheese? Definitely... not. Look, chapeau to the guy for riding so well this week and making a serious run at his national tour. If the race ended today it'd be the highlight of his career. But even ranking him 8th is more a courtesy than a reality; by Sunday night I seriously doubt he'll hang on to the top ten. 38km is a hard crono, there will be minutes separating the wheat from the chaff that day. This course simply isn't right for him, which is too bad because most years the TdS rewards guys riding like Zaugg is.
Tourbeccow Says: "The unsung hero of the race. I will now moo the national anthem in his honor. [proceeds to moo Swiss national anthem...]"
9. Vlad Karpets
Prior Utterances: [again with the crickets?]
Has He Got the Cheese? Yet another quiet, looming threat to the GC. My guess is that the final stage favors the more versatile cronomen, containing as it does some power climbs. Conventional wisdom is that Larsson or Monfort edge Karpets out, but the reality is that the current GC gaps are nothing, they aren't likely to change (except maybe in Cancellara's case), and guys like Karpets, Monfort, Larsson, Martin and Klöden are close enough in ability that it will simply come down to who's feeling great that day.
Tourbeccow Says: "All I know is that Russia is a tough place for cows."
10. Rein Taaramäe
Prior Utterances: "A certain bet for a top ten finish. In fact, I predict he will take 12th place on stage 5, leaving him 1.02 behind in the overall lead at that point. To Valjavec."
Has He Got the Cheese? Yes. Here we go again with the final ITT... he's not in Cancellara's class against the watch, but in Beijing he was nestled into the second tier among Grabsch, Zabriskie, Nibali, Karpets, etc. If he's five spots lower than Larsson it's the shorter resume more than any clear sign that he couldn't pull it off.
Tourbeccow Says: "I have a cousin in Estonia who swears the grass is very, very tasty."