With the Tour de France slumbering this evening in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains, the battle for the Maillot Vert has arguably concluded its second phase (depending on whether you count Saturday as week 2 or week 3), making this a good time for a check-in. Even in the English-speaking world it's well known that we have a two-horse race, but aside from that basic fact it's been an interesting and evolving battle. Here's a little rundown of the favorites as they stand now, with an eye on Paris and an assist from you-know-who:
1. (pre-race: 1) Mark Cavendish, Columbia-HTC ↔ ↑ ↓
Old Bleatings: "Growing pains seem to be behind him. Capable of getting in a groove for a three week race and staying there, for a while at least. No particular set of conditions bothers him.... He has never finished a Tour de France, and only has one complete Giro in his legs. So until we have data, you can't rule out the possibility of him getting tired and missing a finale or two at the end."
New Thinking: Today was a big day for Cavendish. As recently as last Saturday, he was ceding intermediate sprints to Hushovd, and seemed to be on his heels as Big Thor cannily rode himself into Green. Moreover, Columbia's vision seems to involve padding their win totals, which is not exactly what a points competition is all about.
Today, however, Cav showed the consistency needed to win early points on the road -- not counting on Hincapie to cover his ass -- and still take the finish-line points, or what's left of them. Also his team is excellent: I loved watching Tony Martin yesterday gently elbowing a Milram guy off the train in the final run-in. No gifts!
Tourbecco's Take: "Today I am ceding my column space to five time Tour winner Bernard Hinault. Right now the Badger is in a cafe, where he's been since 7am this morning, answering our questions about each rider. Take it away Bernard!"
Badger's Bites: "Cavendish is not a true champion because he does not attack! He cannot win the green jersey by following wheels. He must attack on every stage, including the high mountains!"
Um... ho-kaaay... On the jump, the rest!
2. (2) Thor Hushovd, Cervelo Test Team ↔
Old Bleatings: "Thor always seems to be there, which is the name of the game. No lower than fourth in the last five years....Also no great climber, though he can handle the shorter ones. He lacks the top-end speed to finish off a sprint against Cavendish and hasn't outkicked Freire very often either in the last couple years."
New Thinking: Thor has two remaining advantages over Cavendish: the ability to hang on for dear life over certain climbs, where Cavendish cannot; and the ability to make it to Paris, in which regard Cavendish is a complete unknown. The battle so far can be summarized thusly:
MC: Suck on my back wheel, Thor!
MC: Oh, so that's how you want to play it? No problem.
TH: See you in the mountains... not!
Anyway, Hushovd has shown a steady nerve and the ability to stick to the plan. This he shouldn't change... it's his only hope. Some downsides: his team isn't nearly as strong, and Farrar and Bennati are both moving up.
Badger's Bites: "If you really want to win, you fight to your last breath. My ideal champion is one who wins the race on the Champs-Elysees with a strong attack, and then immediately dies."
3. (5) Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Slipstream ↑
Old Bleatings: "Fast, fast, fast...While inexperience is a big negative in these competitions, Farrar has the benefit of a relatively easy course on which to learn."
Er... OK, he sat out today's stage finish, which is either a sign that he's given up on the points comp (as have most guys outside the top two) or just youthful inattentiveness. So if it's about stage wins... admittedly that's not the purpose of this column. But Farrar does seem to be getting closer and closer to a win. More than that, he's getting between Thor and Cav, which pleases the latter no doubt. Consistency has been a problem, but when he's there, he's been second, fourth, third and second. On the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 launching, another American rocket is taking off.
Badger Bites: "These kids rely too much on earpieces, which are just game boys with a gigolo attached to them in their ears telling them when to take a piss. Also, he does not attack. In my time we would have brought him to tears with our attacking."
4. (6) Gerald Ciolek, Milram ↑
Old Bleatings: "Last year he worked for Cavendish in the High Road system, and did great stuff. The material is all there. But given his age it's probably not fair to expect him to shove guys like Hushovd and Freire aside."
New Thinking: Am thinking he will come on a bit at the end. There was something very intriguing about seeing the Milram train take over the front of the race in the finale yesterday. OK, they couldn't hold it long enough, and the usual result ensued. But this is another young kid, on a new (and newly-reconstituted) team, learning the ropes as a green jersey contender for the first time. So far he's leading Oscar Freire, and he is still working out the kinks. It may not be paying the bills yet, but this is how you build a career.
Badger Bites: "These guys are like civil servants, nobody puts a knife to their throat and tells them they won't get paid unless they win. Including you. I would put a knife to your throat if it would make you do this interview faster."
5. (3) Oscar Freire, Rabobank ↓
Old Bleatings: "I put Hushovd ahead of him for one reason: last year the course gave Freire had a huge advantage and Hushovd finished second. In years when the course favored Hushovd, Freire was nowhere around. In other words, last year was good, but until we see what happens next month it may also have been a fluke."
New Thinking: Fluke! Actually, Oscar has had a bit of a rough go. IIRC he was held up in the first sprint on Stage 2 when a few riders (including Tom Boonen) sailed off the course or got stalled behind that knot of traffic. Then he missed the crosswinds split on stage 3... and the gig was up. Since then he's amassed 97 points, enough to put him in a threatening position had he gotten through the early bits unscathed. In which case stages like tomorrows would still be, as I'd called it earlier, a "Freire stage." Then he'd really be in the thick of it. Now he's 100 points off, hunting for a stage.
Badger's Bites: "I have chunks of guys like Oscar in my stool. Come, I will show you now."
Lurking around: JJ Rojas Gil, Daniele Bennati, Leonardo Duque. JJ Rojas is in stage-hunting mode as well, and doesn't rate quite as fast as Oscar or Farrar, though I could be argued into swapping him and Ciolek. Bennati is a non-factor for Green from his P.O.V., but he's getting closer to contesting sprints, at least making the finale now. I still say he could be heard from in the last couple flat stages.
Gone, forgotten: Tom Boonen, Greg Van Avermaet, Heinrich Haussler. The latter has other ambitions. The other two... ew. I'll take Gavia's take, which is that Boonen's time in purgatory really robbed him of his form. Even if he'd found out a week earlier I can't see that helping much. And anyway, he seems more and more like a rider in transition -- away from his part-time sprinter gig that isn't working very well anymore, and more into full-time classics stud, which is.