"Few things can bring the country of France to a standstill. The start and end of world wars. A revolution. And, every summer, in the heat of July, a bicycle race, as millions line to roads just to catch a glimpse of the two wheeled missiles and the gods who ride them"
Jorgen Leth from the film "23 Days in July"
Stage 3. This early battleground could tell us a lot about what kind of a race this will be. Stage 3 finishes with seven sectors of cobblestone roads, some of which are very difficult. Traditionally, thin climbers (like defending champion Alberto Contador) have trouble riding the cobbles. In 2004, Spanish climber Iban Mayo lost huge chunks of time to Lance Armstrong on a similar cobbled stage. If Armstrong and his team can make Contador suffer on this stage--and take some time from him--then we could have a wild and dramatic race.
Before we get to how I think it will play out, let's look at the favorites.
Two-time winner of the Tour, and acknowledged best stage racer in the world. He has started four grand tours, and won them all. He chalked up some impressive early season wins in this year, and three weeks ago he won the l'Alpe D'Huez stage of the Dauphine. At 27, he is at the height of his powers. His team (a weakened Astana) is a question mark, but his ability is not. His only real weakness may be his impatient nature and lack of tactical nous.
Seven-time winner. 3rd place last year after 3 years in retirement. Slow start this year, but in June finished 3rd in the Tour of Luxembourg and 2nd in the Tour of Switzerland. He's 38, but has said in the last week that he feels 28 again, and that his training and test times are close to where they were at his peak (at least on the climbs). Has a very strong, albeit very old, Radio Shack team. His time trialing has slipped--a lot. But, he's the smartest racer in the bunch, and may be peaking at the right time.
2nd place last year. Regarded as the 2nd best climber in the world, behind Contador. Not much of a time trialist, and not much in the way of race results this year. Crashed in training last week--scratched up. Has put all of his 2010 eggs in the Tour basket. May be the only rider in the world who can ride away from Contador in the mountains, and is backed by a strong Saxo Bank squad. He's 25 years old--should be coming into his peak as a rider.
Andy's brother, who has been better than Andy this season. Recently won the Tour of Switzerland, and was second in Luxembourg. Improved time trialist, gifted climber. May be a better bet this July than his brother. Also races for Saxo Bank. Frank seems to be a better all-around rider than Andy, yet always seems to sacrifice himself for his bother at the Tour. With his form this season, it may be the other way around this time.
Former Tour of Italy winner, then suspended two years for doping, and now recent Tour of Italy winner (two months ago). Does he have enough in the tank to win the Giro in May and then be competitive at the Tour? We'll see. If on form, he's a great climber and a good time trialist. Liquigas team is strong. Basso is this Tour's dark horse/wild card--he could be very good, or very bad.
Cadell Evans, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, Bradley Wiggins, Christian Vandevelde. If anyone other than one of these ten riders wins the Tour, I will walk down Greenville Ave in a bra and panties.
How I Think It Will Play Out
Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank) will win the prologue time trial, and the first yellow jersey. He will then try to keep yellow on Stage 3 over the cobblestones. Saxo Bank will have to be careful not to burn themselves out early helping Cancellara, as they'll need to save energy for the Schleck brothers and the mountains in the final two weeks. But they'll have yellow for a few days early.
Radio Shack will set a torrid pace on the cobbles near the end of Stage 3. Armstrong is good on those roads, and I think The Shack will try to rip the race apart. Contador knows this, but that doesn't matter--can he do anything about it? He trained a bit on the cobbles this spring, but he's never raced on them--big difference. I see him losing a couple on minutes on this stage. And that will set the stage for a delicious final two weeks. If Amrstrong is not able to pick up any time on Contador on this stage, then the race may be over.
The Alps come first this year, with one mountain top finish. The Pyrenees are more difficult, but will Ccontador be able to control himself until the final week? Will he need to make up time on Armstrong sooner that he thinks? I'm sure, given his mindset, that Contador will try to take time at Avoriaz, the first mountain top finish--Stage 8. If Contador has trouble dropping Lance on this stage, then lookout. If Amrstrong is climbing as well as he says, then this stage should be very interesting.
Stages 16 and 17 are brutal Pyrenean climbing stages. Most feel that Contador will stamp his authority on the race here, in the mountains that border his native country. I think we may have three or four men (Contador, Armstrong, and the Schelck brothers) all within a minute of each other at this point. Whoever can handle the Tourmalet the best will emerge as the likely yellow jersey in Paris. Safe bet here is Contador. He should leave the mountains with a couple of minutes advantage on his rivals, and he should add to that in the final time trial the day before the race ends.
My final picks:
2. Armstrong @ 3:00
3. F. Schleck @ 3:15
4. A. Schleck @ 4:00
5. Evans @ 5:00
(If I had just a little more faith in Conatador, I would pick him to win by 10 minutes. This is the year he should be able to do that, but part of me doesn't trust him, and part of me believes the way the Tour is raced these days--with race radios and director sportif's controling almost everything--that the days of the Merckx-like 10 and 20 minute gaps are over)
It's hard to pick against Contador--he's in his prime, he's had a nice season so far, he's motivated to beat Lance, and he's the best in the world. Lance will put up a good fight--he probably knows he can't beat Contador straight up, but over three weeks, anything can happen. Contador could crash, test positive, have one really bad day, get sick--anything can happen.
I expect Lance to be better than last year in the mountains, but I worry about his time trialing. You can win the Tour if you're in the top 5 in the time trials, but you can't finish 15th in the time trials as he's been doing. Lance can get time on the cobbles, stay close in the mountains, limit his losses in the time trials, and finish on the podium again.
I like Frank Schleck better than Andy this year, but Frank and Andy have a way of throwing away their own chances in order to help each other. If Frank gets greedy and doesn't worry about Andy, he can finish in the top 3. Andy could be playing possum, but something just doesn't look or feel right about him this season.
Cadell Evans is a cagey, gutsy rider who has twice finished second in this race. He'll ride well again. It will be good to see the world champion's jersey racing to win the Tour de France--we haven't seen that since the 90's with Abraham Olano and Greg LeMond.
It will be a fascinating three weeks. With Lance and Alberto on different teams this year, the race should be much more interesting than the '09 edition. This will be Lance's final Tour, and I think he'll go out with a bang--another podium finish, and a fight with Contador through the final week. But, in the end, 27 year old legs beat 38 year old legs.