The cliché says you can’t win the Tour de France in the first week, but you can certainly lose it. It’s a shame really, because so many pro teams organize their season around the Tour, the possibility for stage wins, for sponsor publicity, for glory. Something simple like the swerve of a car or a wet bend in the road can play havoc with a pack of riders grand tour thick and first week nervous.
Those who lost the Tour in the first week are easy to list: Alexandre Vinokourov and Team Astana, Alessandro Petacchi, Jani Brajkovic, Chris Horner and Team Radio Shack, Tom Boonen and his QuickStep squad, and Bradley Wiggins.
Aging Vinokourov fractured his pelvis in a gruesome looking crash over a concrete barrier and down into a ditch. The sight of his teammates gathered around, along with a team doctor, carrying him back up onto the road, signaled the end for the Kazakh team. Vino went off to hospital. The rest rode desultorily up the road to chase onto the neutralized peloton. Even Roman Kreuziger, who might have pretended to be riding for GC, injured his wrist earlier in the week. Not sure what the boys in electric blue and yellow will do for the next two weeks, but we will see.
Another elder statesman of the road, Alessandro Petacchi, has managed to be involved in exactly nothing in the opening stanza. Tipped as an outside bet to nick stage wins off Mark Cavendish, the Italian has instead been conspicuous only by his absence.
Team Radio Shack are going only slightly better than Team Astana. One possible GC man, Jani Brajkovic, crashed out with a concussion and a broken collarbone on Stage Five. Chris Horner left the race two days later also with a dramatic head injury. Levi Leipheimer has been on the deck as often as Captain Ahab, falling out of GC contention, and then Andreas Klöden, the Shack’s one remaining hope, injured his back on Stage Nine. They’ll drag themselves to the finish, but this, apparently, will not be the year Johan Bruyneel forgets his old buddy Lance.
QuickStep are never in France riding for the general classification, but with major crashes leading to the abandonment of Tom Boonen, their best hope for a stage win, and heavy injuries to Sylvain Chavanel, their strongest breakaway chance, QuickStep will likely be walking away with nothing in 2011.
Team Sky also lost their main GC hope when Bradley Wiggins did his collarbone on Stage Seven. With Geraint Thomas, Stage Six winner Edvald Boasson-Hagen, and Rigoberto Uran still in the race, Sky has plenty left to ride for, but conceding the GC battle must hurt a team whose stated goal is to win the Tour with a Briton.
There is also a small group whose fate is still too hard to discern.
Much has been written over the past week about Alberto Contador’s misfortunes and seeming vulnerability. When he lost more than a minute on Stage One, commentators were already saying his race was over, but these storylines are predictable. In truth, an on-form Contador can pull back his current deficit in a single Alpine attack. More worrying for the Spaniard is that multiple crashes have left him battered and bruised, especially a bad right knee which could steal his explosiveness in the steeps. Furthermore, his SaxoBank-Sungard team never seems to be with him. Even when he’s tucked into the peloton, his support team is seldom in evidence. Will they be there when he needs them most, in the Pyrenees and Alps?
Another too soon to tell is Ivan Basso. The Italian decided to forgo a defense of his Giro d’Italia title to focus on the Tour, and now, at the end of the first week, Basso has managed to remain upright, but he is 3:36 down on GC, and he’s a crappy time trialist. You can count three or four GC faves Basso will outclimb when the road turns up, but the podium will be a big stretch.
Perhaps the biggest question mark hangs over Tour Director Christian Prudhomme. On the one hand, first week drama is always good for the Tour as the real fireworks seem to fly on the climbing stages of weeks two and three. However, the riders and teams are feeling as though the course is too dangerous, and some high profile crashes and injuries reinforce the notion that the new game in grand tours is putting the participants through the wringer.
Multiple accidents involving caravan vehicles call into question the Amaury Sports Organization’s ability to manage all the moving parts, and cramming 22 teams of 9 riders each through some of the tiny roads of northern and central France looks like a not very good idea too. Fans, especially those who’ve never crashed, seem to love the carnage, but in the end, we all want to see the race decided by the quality of the riders, not by simple attrition.
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International
Last week we made a raft of preposterous predictions for the upcoming Grand Boucle in France. It was fun. But as the actual race approached we ought to probably settle in and start the very, extremely serious work of predicting and arguing over what will really happen.
To begin with, it seems we are on the verge of watching Alberto Contador complete the Giro/Tour double, a feat last performed by Marco Pantani, likely while riding with blood thicker than Jell-O. Contador has been so dominant this year, and over the last three years, that he, like Armstrong before him, will be the pre-ordained GC favorite.
What we need to do is figure out who really has a shot at beating him. You will recall Chaingate last year, the incident in which Andy Schleck’s mechanical opened the door to 39 seconds of breathing room for the mercurial Spaniard. Though a crappy time trialist, Schleck appears to be the only one able to climb with Contador.
Cadel Evans is another possibility. He of the ever-improving public image has raced very well over the last two seasons, and might well have been in yellow in Paris last year if it hadn’t been for a broken elbow suffered at the end of the first week. Evans can climb (if in a muscular style not at all like his bird-like competition), and he can time trial. Is it possible?
VeloNews (if you’ve read their Tour preview edition) seems to believe that the RadioShack cycling team have more than one GC contender from the group comprised of Leipheimer, Klöden, Brajkovic and Horner. I believe they have none, but who am I?
More credible, in my mind, is Ivan Basso. Like Schleck, the Italian can climb with the very best, but his time trialing is poor. What Basso has going for him is a strong TTT that might help him bank some time against Contador and the rest.
Then, of course, there’s a whole cadre of talented hopefuls: Fränk Schleck, the Leopard-Trek counterpunch who we’ve seen win big races and will certainly get his brother’s support if it comes to that; Robert Gesink, the willowy, Dutch climber; Roman Kreuziger, Astana’s new hope; Christian Vande Velde who has the talent and the team, but will his health hold?; Ryder Hesjedal, last year’s Garmin surprise; Brad Wiggins, who I was ready to write off until he won the Dauphiné; and Juergen van den Broek, the Omega Pharma – Lotto man.
Some one of that group is going to have a great race. Will it be great enough?
What do you think? Who can beat Contador? How will they do it? Why is it their time?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International