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Le Tour: Chris...'s Five To Watch

Le-tour-sm_mediumRemember our initial effort to take a race and ask people to look at five different riders? It's time to roll that out for the Tour de France. A little background: "race previews" of the conventional nature require a lot of writing and are about as rare as mosquitos in a Minnesota summer. So we thought that instead of serving up a conventional preview, we will be dissecting the race in advance through two primary tools: the "five to watch" series where different voices speak up about a handful of riders worth discussing, and through the Classification-specific previews. The Five to Watch won't predict outcomes; whereas the classification previews will run mostly in the form of power polls so they don't overlap with the five to watch discussions too much. My five to watch do have a common denominator: they're all serving one-year sentences on my VDS team: Robert Gesink, Tyler Farrar, Edvald Boasson Hagen, George Hincapie, and Maxime Monfort. Here we goes!

Robert Gesink, Rabobank

Having just focused on him last week, and having waited several months for him to do something (which he did, and then undid in quick succession), I feel fully qualified to take on the subject of Robert Gesink at the Tour de France. Gesink's solo victory in the queen stage of the Tour de Suisse helped burnish his credentials as one of the world's top climbers... not the most crowded club at the moment. He's only started one Tour and didn't get very far before breaking a wrist, so taking him seriously right now as an overall contender for the win is a mistake, even before we bring up the delicate subject of time trialling. [To be continued... on the flip!]

I don't know what Gesink's precise goals will be, though it sounds like a combination of eyeing the late mountains and seeing how things are going between himself and Menchov. If I were in charge (please Rabobank, put me in charge), I would tell him this:

  • Don't worry about classifications, just go out with the goal of learning and riding smartly every day
  • Keep your effort under control in the Alps and the Jura, where the time gaps will be minimal
  • Build up toward the Pyrenees and let it all hang out on the final stage to the Tourmalet, with the goal of the stage win, which would probably help him more in the classifications (maillot blanc especially) than any other effort
  • Don't even think about the final ITT before the final weekend; by then everyone who goes down the start ramp will have three weeks of misery in their legs so who knows?
  • All that really matters is making it to Paris, because you're still a kid and you need to finish one of these things first.

If he wins the Henri Desgranges prize that day, it will do more for his career than any other goal one could reasonably see him achieve. This alone could be out of reach, coming in week three of what he hopes is his third-ever grand tour finish, but we have seen him ride with great character (last week, Giro dell'Emilia) when all that's left is to climb out of his mind. If he's not depleted beyond repair, I'd love to see him show the whole world those qualities that Dutch fans have been buzzing about for a few years now.

Tyler Farrar, Garmin-Transitions

Like Gesink, Farrar needs to walk before he can run. It's fun to talk about him as a green jersey threat, which I will do at great length in my preview of that classification n/l/t Monday. But the points comp is yet another milestone in the sport which favors experience, and among the problems facing Farrar is the fact that the other guys -- even Cavendish -- have been around the boucle more than he has. Can he make a green jersey run? Farrar has shown the ability to do the necessary things, seizing position, riding at the front, getting up and over the requisite number of obstacles, unleashing a massive top speed, etc. So in theory, sure. 

The question I have -- and I really don't know the answer -- is whether Farrar can afford to chase the green jersey and try to win a stage, or whether he and his team will really only have the strength for one or the other. Going for Green means contesting intermediate sprints and difficult stage finishes, of which there are several. It's hard work. Winning a stage, on the other hand, will require every bit of energy Farrar has considering the nature of Tour stages and the little Manx dude he has to come around. To his team and their target audience, a stage win is about as valuable as the maillot vert, particularly if it comes at Cavendish's expense, and comes at much shorter odds. So IMHO the smart play is to focus on the sprint stages, go all in on that first Tour win, and only turn to the green jersey if it falls in his lap.

Edvald Boasson Hagen, Team Sky

Ah, speaking of green jerseys... Boasson Hagen's impression on this Tour de France could be easily one of the most interesting stories for us dedicated, can't-quit-you fans. The outgoing Norse chatterbox will be making his debut in the Big Show, coming off a prolonged break owing to an achilles problem, and serving a team focused exclusively on Bradley Wiggins' GC chances. That's the downside. The upside is that he's coming into form with wins in his last two races (last Dauphine road stage and the Norge ITT), he should be under zero pressure to do anything, and the parcours couldn't possibly be more to his liking. For consistency's sake I will admit, painfully, that this opportunity comes probably one to three years too early into his career for a serious green jersey run, so he will likely assume his team role leading up to the sprints, poach a win there if possible (unlikely), and find a day in the Jura or some other mid-mountain thingy when Wiggins can free him up for a real chance at a win. 

George Hincapie, BMC

Shifting gears now... these are bittersweet days for Hincapie, I would guess. He is officially the most esteemed presence at the Tour, and in our interview last winter it was clear that he takes pride in thirteen completed trips down the Champs-Elysees, one of the all-time durability marks and just three off Joop Zoetemelk's record 16 Tour finishes. Everything he does to get himself closer to Paris will extend his run of distinction. And since Hincapie does everything well -- ride in front, handle his bike, climb, etc. -- his chances of finishing #14 are as close to a certainty as you'll find in this terribly uncertain world. 

But Hincapie has a pretty profound taste of Tour glory as well -- winning a stage and shepherding around a seven-time maillot jaune, as well as a brash young sprinter the last couple turns. Missing from his resume is a yellow jersey of his own (an early-race one, obviously), and the events which took the jersey off his back in last year's Tour by mere seconds is undoubtedly something he remembers. So here are my two goals for Hincapie, apart from doing what he can to keep Cadel Evans' GC hopes respectable: 1) making a run at that Hell of the North stage; and 2) trying to sneak into yellow that day, like if he does a strong prologue and gets in the front group in stage 3. Or go the long escape route. His team can't have the highest hopes on any of the big classifications, so getting Hincapie's goals accomplished should be a shared priority.

Maxime Monfort, HTC

Monfort, a 27-year-old Belgian heralded in his early years as a potential GC threat, is one of those guys who make the sport a lot more interesting than it looks at first blush. Monfort has never climbed well enough for a team to construct itself around his GC hopes. An insurgent 11th at the 2007 Vuelta is his best result; his two Tours have seen him finish just outside the top 20. That said, he is a time triallist of note and a B-list climber. He can go uphill really well and can ride a hard tempo, in an escape, or in setting up a sprint, or on the tip of the spear when his team is in charge of the pack. In short, guys like Monfort are indispensible teammates and guys to watch in the minor classifications. Given what the polka dot jersey has become, one could easily see it on his shoulders... except his team need him for too many other duties to let Monfort race for himself. HTC are good about making sure everyone gets their day, however. With all the things he can do, Monfort stands to earn his money and his moment in the sun.