Every year the Tour de France casts the spotlight on a few people unexpectedly, sometimes even for good behavior. Here's a quick rundown of my five favorite surprise storylines from this year's Tour.
1. Brice Feillu, Agritubel
The young French climber has quickly made a name for himself with a solo win atop Arcalis, the only major mountain finish so far, as well as today's attack in the Vosges which netted him third. He's still nearly three minutes from white and four from yellow, so that may be as far as things go for now, particularly as the race draws closer to the showdown in the Alps, where Feillu the Younger will be powerless to stop the Contadors and Schlecks of the world from taking over the competitions. But Feillu has etched his name alongside young French climbing hopefuls like Maxime Bouet and Jerome Coppel as guys to watch. And French Cycling should be grateful his stab at yellow didn't work today; the last thing he needs is to be anointed the next savior of French Cycling, wherein the pressure drives him to party like it's 1999, and he drops 25 minutes at the first sight of a mountain next July.
2. Le Maillot à Pois
Franco Pellizotti is hardly unknown in Italy, but the Liquigas vet is something of a stranger to Le Tour, so his ambushing of the KOM competition in his third Tour is a nice surprise. But IMHO the bigger story is the competition itself. The Red Peas have fallen on hard times over the last 20 years or so, landing on the shoulders of many a doper or poseur, on the strength of a single solo attack at the first multiple mountains stage. I've long been a critic of these results -- perhaps excessively so -- but it's still nice to see a guy from the GC wearing the race's coolest fashion statement. Granted, Pellizotti is over 12 minutes back on GC, but he's generally hanging with the big guys, and functioning well as helper-in-chief to Liquigas' GC guys, Kreuziger and Nibali. There also should be little doubting the GC chops of the guy who just took a podium in the Giro, and fourth last year. This is a far cry from the Rasmussens (maillot pois, then never heard from again) or guys like Kohl or Botero, who I wish we'd never heard from again. [I'm not touching Richard Virenque's legacy, too complicated.] And it's a nice way to represent the Giro-Tour double GC crew, as well as Italian Cycling, which isn't often heard from in July.
3. Bradley Wiggins, Garmin-Slipstream
This storyline isn't a secret, but since it's the biggest surprise so far, I couldn't avoid mentioning it. Whether Wiggins, the track god, can carry his remarkable ride to the end is a big question, but so far he's been solid. The transition from Madison to the Mountains apparently has a lot to do with shedding 6 kg (roughly 15 pounds) over the last year, as well as his dedication to the Tour over other objectives... like, say, the Olympics. Lots of people cheering him on, come what may.
4. Vincenzo Nibali, Liquigas
The Shark of the Strait (named after his home by the Straits of Messina, Sicily) is deliberately stalking the world's greatest climbers in 2009, and finds himself ninth overall heading into the Alps. Now, how much of this is progress (he finished 18th last year, 28' back) versus the difference between not doing the Giro first is debatable. But Nibali is putting a nice peak together this summer, coming in off a 7th place in the Dauphine and a win in the Giro dell'Appennino. Last year the Alps were his undoing, so no popping open the Nero d'Avola yet, but again that was after a very tough Giro. Stay tuned, Liquigas may have something to say about those last top five placings just yet.
5. Jose Joaquin Rojas Gil, Caisse d'Epargne
I could easily do a piece on Luis Leon Sanchez, except I think his exploits are somewhat better known and expected. And anyway, it's not all about Yellow. JJ is riding his first Tour, so third in the maillot vert (albeit distant) is highly respectable, when you look at the names below his: Farrar, Freire, Boonen, Ciolek, Bennati, Van Avermaet, etc. He fell off a bit in stage 11, perhaps due to the uphill finish, and he missed the first sprint while finding his legs. But otherwise Rojas had been consistently between 3rd and 7th place in the sprints, showing some top-end speed and the nerve that escapes most 24-year-olds.