Wow, what an amazing and surprising Tour de France this has been! Crashes, crashes, crashes, crashes, and more crashes. Oh yeah, and even more crashes. This year’s edition seems more dangerous that prior ones; race director Jean François Pescheux attributes it to nervousness in the peloton, but others claim poor route design, the bad weather, or the race caravan. One thing is for sure: whatever it is has taken its toll.
Before the race actually started, most talking heads believed that the winner was a matter of deciding between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. The only uncertainty, thus, was who would earn the final podium spot. There were plenty of contenders to chose from at the time – among them, Bradley Wiggins, Janez Brajkovic, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso, Robert Gesink, Levi Leipheimer, Sammy Sanchez, Jurgen Van den Broeck, Chris Horner and Alexander Vinokourov. However, at the first Rest Day following Stage 9, attrition had taken it’s toll on Horner, Brajkovic, Wiggins, Vinokourov and Van den Broeck, and discounted the ambitions of Gesink and Leipheimer. Even Contador’s seemingly superhuman nature was failing. Does this mean that all bets are off? Some of Pavé’s contributors got together to collaboratively argue our vision of the podium contenders. Here’s how we think things are going to turn out in the end.
Julius: Men in Orange Shall Impress
One Orange Squad that I thought has deserved some GC success is Rabobank. They have learned their trade in several successful Vuelta outings, and a few opportunities in the TdF. Their leader Robert Gesink has had a steady build-up to the TdF, winning Tour of Oman’s queen stage and TTT, and performing well in Dauphine’s climbing stages. As Mattio said, Rabo brought a dedicated squad to the TdF. In the absence of a dominating team in this year’s climbing stages, Gesink may be at risk of a chaotic competition, but I have faith that LL Sanchez, Carlos Barredo, Lars Boom, Laurens ten Dam, Bauke Mollema, and other Orange Men can keep it together for the steadier competition that Gesink favors. In particular, the two Spaniards Barredo and LL Sanchez have serious creds, with GT stage wins to their names. Unfortunately Gesink is faltering, and given that it is likely to be due to injury, I don’t think he is going to be able to recover. Certainly, LL Sanchez’s win on Super-Besse is sign that the squad is moving on to Plan B, and their win has reduced the pressure on them. Whether this plan B is to hunt stage wins or try and maintain Sanchez’s considerable GC gains, however, we have yet to see.
If I have to give up on that Group of Orange Men, I’ll place my pick on the Other Orange Men: Euskaltel. When this season started, I had thought it was Sammy Sanchez‘s chance to shine. He knows how to win a GT, he has a squad full of spider monkey climbing specialists, and he has dedicated himself to the quest of greatness in the TdF. Unfortunately, the sketchy and dangerous first part of the race seems to have taken a huge toll not only due to their non-existent TTT skills, but because the entire squad seems to have the bike handling skills of, well, spider monkeys. Half the squad seems to have had some injury, and they seem destined to repeat the fate of Kelme and Cafe Colombia: If they can make it to the mountains they will show their strength, but they need to survive to stage 12 to get the chance. But regardless, Sanchez himself is personally spared the worst physical damages, and given his proven longevity in a long-slog such as a 3-week GT, I believe he will shine in the final week.
I had tipped BMC for a strong ride in the TTT – or, at least, I claimed to have, anyway. It’s part of the faith I’ve had in Cadel Evans ever since we saw him weep his way across the World Championships finish line in Mendrisio. Since then, he’s been confident, strong, and savvy, with wins at la Fleche Wallone and, this year, Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour de Romandie before a comfortable 2nd place at the Dauphine. He’s built for the Tour with a limited but successful racing schedule to stay fresh, and this Tour, he’s raced admirably. He’s scored his first ever Tour stage win, wore Green and Polka Dots, and has been the only one who could challenge Phillipe Gilbert on uphill sprints.
The question, of course, is can he maintain in the mountains. I’m out on a limb here, but I’ll say yes. He’s fresh from a season of limited racing; he’s got a team of roleurs that can support him until the treacherous slopes. He’s got confidence to race above his level, sourced from from two excellent seasons and a fine Tour already, as well as his own stomach full of anger to make up for his broken elbow (while in Yellow) from the 2010 Tour. Furthermore, with the attrition to the field of GC contenders taking out some of the purer climbers in the field, Evans’ early time gains will pay off down the road. Cadel Evans will stand on the podium in Paris.