Tour Thoughts

So the Tour de France is nearing its final week, and the race approaches the final proving grounds in the Pyrennes. Conventional wisdom says it is now a two horse race between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. At the moment, Shleck holds a 31 second lead over the Spainard, but several big mountain stages and an individual time trial await. Samuel Sanchez lurks in third, and not far behind him, Denis Menchov. While I would certainly like to see Schleck derail Contador, I just can’t see it happening. Even if Schleck sits on Contador’s wheel for the next week, 31 seconds may not be enough in the time trial (Schleck lost 1:09 in the prologue, and also bled time during last year’s TT) against Contador. Granted, the yellow jersey often provides a dose of extra speed (see Carlos Sastre in 2008), but unless Schleck has nearly two minutes in hand before the time trial, I don’t see him keeping the jersey.

That said, Sanchez and Menchov both have a good chance to move to podium. Sanchez is good enough to follow Contador’s wheel in the Pyrennes, and a reasonable enough time trial to hold his position. Menchov is a bit of a wild card–if he’s on, he is capable of holding his position in the mountains, and stealing back time in the time trial. Schleck needs to keep an eye behind him next week, as well as an eye on Contador.

Then there’s Cadel Evans. I’ve gained a great of respect for “Cuddles” since he won the rainbow jersey last year, and he rode well, right up the moment he broke his elbow. I really wish he’d give up his grand tour aspirations (at least as a GC contender) and mold himself as an all-around, capable of winning just about anywhere. He had several strong stages thus far, and wore the yellow jersey for a stage (a boon for BMC). It’s rare for the current world champ to wear the yellow jersey at all, and Evans has won the leader’s jersey in each of the last three grand tours. Impressive.

Is it just me, or does the Tour resemble a training race at the Oval? Has anyone not crashed? Interestingly, the feared cobbles on stage three didn’t cause as much damage as expected (though Schleck lost his brother Frank to a broken collarbone), but there have been plenty of crashes on other stages. Garmin has lost three riders (most notably Tyler Farrar and Christian Vande Velde, their great hopes), and Lance Armstrong seems to go down almost daily. Armstrong, by the way, seems to be bleeding time in hopes that the peleton will give him a long leash to win a stage before he retires. We’ll see. I suspect there are plenty in the peleton who would like to stick it to LA before he retires.

And what about Astana? First, Alexandre Vinokorauv seems to riding like a crazy old man, not supporting Contador and riding for a stage win. But then his attack in the Alps looks savvy because it splinters the field. Then Contador attacks on Friday and catches (and passes) Vino on the final climb. What gives? I tend to think Contador doesn’t quite understand the mantle of team leadership yet, and the attack seemed ill-timed, since the climb was not long enough to put serious time into Schleck. But, Rodriquez jumped first, and Astana’s DS clearly knew Vino was fading. Perhaps allowing Contador to jump was a way to get Astana a stage win? Or, perhaps Contador was just being selfish. Who knows. Vino, however, got his stage win today, and given the hugs and kisses after the stage, if there was any ill will between the two, it is gone now. I suspect Vino will be a critical domestique in the coming week.

And what to make of the green jersey battle? Hushovd remains in the hunt thanks to savvy riding (and a win on the cobbled stage), but Pettachi holds the jersey by the slimmest of leads. After a poor start, Mark Cavendish is in contention, but with only a sprint or two (at most) to win, he needs to be perfect. This will be difficult since the commissioners excluded Mark Renshaw for his shenanigans at the end of stage 11. Renshaw should have been relegated, for sure, but thrown out? I’m not sure about that. I suspect it was a way for the officials to punish Cavendish as much as Renshaw. Either way, given that Cav took the field sprint today, he may in contention yet.

Tomorrow’s stage begins the push through the Pyrennes, with a mountain finish on Ax-3 Domaines. Expect some fireworks.