Tour de France – Contenders and Pretenders, So Far…

Now that we’ve had our first “real” GC shake-up—since yesterday at least—we can take some time to begin sorting the Contenders from the Pretenders. For some pundits it might be a bit early write individuals off completely, but a quick peruse down the GC, reveals that some pretty significant gaps have come to exist.

First, the Contenders:

1. Astana’s Fearsome Foursome
All talk of controversies aside, Astana is clearly the class of the 2009 Tour de France. With 4 riders in the Top-5 on GC (separated by 31 seconds), their only weakness might be the sheer number of men with serious ambitions for the win. Armstrong, Contador, Kloden, and Leipheimer—none have shown any sign of frailty. This weekend’s Pyrenean stages will give us our first look at the hierarchy–maybe. Someone’s gotta crack at some point, right? They can’t just TTT all the way up Arcalis, can they? Can they?

2. Liquigas’ Young Guns
In a Tweet at the beginning of the stage, I tipped Liquigas as a dark horse for today’s TTT. I wasn’t expecting them to win, but with their rouleurs and the TT skills of Kreuziger and Nibali, I knew they could turn-in a respectable time. And they did. 4th place behind three of the world’s strongest teams (and just ahead of another) is a terrific result! Kreuziger lies 15th overall at 1:31 and Nibali sits in 19th at 1:36 back. Now, these gaps are not insignificant, but they aren’t insurmountable either. Stranger things have happened, and both of these men now find themselves in the perfect place to surprise the big name competition. For example, in the Versus coverage today, the team was barely mentioned. With strong teammates like Kuschynski, Pellizotti, Vandborg, and Willems, they have a team that can keep them near the front and out of trouble. I’m telling you, watch-out for Liquigas.

3. Andy Schleck
Saxo Bank rode a respectable race to finish 3rd on the day, barely keeping Cancellara in yellow. As a result, Andy Schleck still sits in a position to have a legitimate shot at cracking the race open. He’s in 20th right now, 1:41 down on Spartacus Armstrong. (Now there’s a name for my first-born, son!) Brother Frank is 2:17 down and could rally over the coming days, but it would be to his brother’s detriment. Saxo will need a full team effort to launch one of it’s men to the top of the GC. But they have just the team to do it. We’ll know more after the Pyrenees.

4. Someone from Columbia-HTC
Columbia is well-placed to contend throughout the rest of the race. The question remains, for who or for what? Tony Martin, Mick Rogers, and Kim Kirchen all can see the summit of Mt. GC. (Kirchen’s got the biggest deficit at 1:32.) They could work together to try and place one of these men up front, or they continue to gather stage wins. For this team, the Pyrenees will tell us almost as much about the rest of their Tour as they will for Astana. If one of these three men comes through within shooting distance of the top, then Columbia might be onto something. If not, they can go back to doing what they do best: winning stages.

5. Christian Vande Velde
I have to be honest, my gut says he’s a pretender, but I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt until he shows otherwise. He’s 12th, 1:16 back. The problem for CVV is the fact that his team has pretty much passed the high point of its race. Without a talented climber to usher him to the front when the road tilts upward, Vande Velde will use too much energy to have anything left to attack with. Or he could prove us me wrong and ride himself further up the classification. He does know the roads in Spain quite well—maybe riding around his home away from home will inspire him? We’ll know more soon.

And now for the Pretenders:

1. Denis Menchov
Clearly Menchov learned bike control skills from Michael Rasmussen. We thought the final Giro TT was a fluke, but today we saw it’s a bad habit that will need to be remedied soon. Menchov’s 3:52 back and barring something incredible, has little if no hope for the win. Stages should be his goal—and maybe riding in support of Robert Gesink (3:36 back) as he learns his way through his first Tour.

2. Cadel Evans
I’m sorry to say it, but I’m officially ruling Cadel out of the picture for the overall win. He’s certainly capable of a momentous effort, but he’s not showing signs of being able to get it done. His team appears to be in disarray, and he seemed scared before the stage, almost pleading with his guys to have a good day. I can’t help but think he’s sitting in his room, wondering if his best days and chances are behind him. The other teams are simply too deep and too strong.

3. Carlos Sastre
If I wanted to take the easy way out, I’d create a “To Be Determined” category and put Sastre and Evans in it. But this is about taking a stand, and I’m just not comfortable considering Sastre a serious threat to repeat his win from last year. His team is a step below most of the other teams with GC contenders, and he’s not the type of rider to seize control all by himself. And 2:44 is a lot to overcome when many of the other talented climbers sit more than a minute ahead of you on GC. Sorry Carlos, last year was your year. This year’s one for stage wins and maybe a shot at the Vuelta?

4. Caisse d”Epargne
When Caisse d’Epargne came in with an early fast time, I was excited to see how they would fare over the next week. That said, looking down the standings I see no one on the team within shouting distance of making a mark on GC. Popular dark horse Luis Leon Sanchez lies way down in 53rd with Pippo Pozzato, 3:18 back. Oscar Pereiro is one of Caisse d’Epargne’s best-placed men, but even he’s 3:03 down. Clearly this was a team putting more hope in Alejandro Valverde than we originally aniticpated. At this point, I’d shoot for stage wins, amigos.

That’s it for today! What about you? Who are you ready to write-off? Who’s your #1 Contender?

Share you thoughts with the rest of us! And come back soon!

About Whit

My experiences might easily fit many cycling fans' definitions of “living the dream.” Since getting hooked on the sport watching Lance Armstrong win the 1993 U.S. Pro Championship, I've raced as an amateur on Belgian cobbles, traveled Europe to help build a European pro team, and piloted that team from Malaysia to Mont Ventoux. As a former assistant director sportif with Mercury-Viatel, I've also seen the less dreamy side of the sport – the side rife with broken contracts, infighting, and positive dope tests. These days, I live with my lovely wife in Pennsylvania and share my experiences and views on the sport at Bicycling Magazine, the Embrocation Cycling Journal, and at my own site, Pavé.
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