June 16, 2010 by Irish Peloton
Tour Contender Preparation
There is only 17 days left until the Tour de France gets underway in Rotterdam. Teams are finalising their nine man rosters and riders have been fine tuning their preparations at the Criterium de Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse. While others have been quietly going about their business since the Giro. In this month’s Cycle Sport magazine, Tour director Christian Prudhomme had this to say about the G.C. contenders for the Tour:
Overall, nobody is surefire value for the Tour this year – there’s some degree of uncertainty about their condition, either because it’s better than expected, slightly worse, or because, simply, they’ve kept it under wraps. And that sort of uncertainty can only be good.
This is true, the Dauphiné and the Tour de Suisse provide an odd mix of racing. It’s hard to tell from rider to rider whether they are racing hard because they know they won’t be team leader for the Tour and that this is their opportunity to shine, or whether they are racing easy because they are saving themselves for a more important goal at the Tour.
A case in point is Alberto Contador last year. He tried to win every race he entered until he reached the Dauphiné where he seemed to make a deal with fellow Spaniard Alejandro Valverde. The deal was that Contador would give Vavlverde a hand winning the Dauphiné if Valverde would return the favour at the Tour. Contador upheld his part of the bargain. Valverde, due to his involvement in Operacion Puerto and subsequent doping ban, did not.
However, there was no deal in place this year as Contador, despite declaring otherwise, really seemed to want to win the Dauphiné, a race he is yet to win. He put in attack after attack on Alpe d’Huez trying to rid himself of Jani Brajkovic but failed in his attempts. He was ulimately beaten by a man who out performed him in a time trial and defended successfully in the mountains. Replace the words ‘time trial’ with the words ‘over the cobbles’ and we could have ourselves a way to beat Contador.
During Lance Armstrong’s Tour winning years he perfected a formula which led him to the yellow jersey in July. He rarely won a race before June, a month in which he would ride either the Dauphiné or the Tour de Suisse. He would ride these races to win, announcing his form (which he had honed on various recces of Tour stages) and his intentions to his Tour rivals. Along with Eddy Merckx he’s the only rider to have won both a Tour de France/Tour de Suisse and a Tour de France/Dauphiné double.
However, there have been more subtle approaches, such as that of Carlos Sastre. In his Tour winning year of 2008 he managed two top 10 placings in the early season Tour of Murcia, but apart from these two exceptions he didn’t finish in the top 20 again that year until he reached the Tour de France. On pre-Tour form Sastre was not a standout candidate, but he had ridden himself into form over the course of the whole year and had kept quiet about it. So quiet that perhaps his rivals underestimated him when it came to the stage up Alpe d’Huez.
So how are all the Tour contenders faring so far this year?
From the vieweing the above table, it’s clear that yet again Contador is having the best season so far of all the Tour G.C. contenders. Despite what Prudhomme may like to think, Contador is most certainly surefire value for this year’s Tour. He has shown certain weaknesses this year, such as ‘only’ finishing 6th in the Dauphiné time trial, not being able to drop Brajkovic on Alpe d’Huez, mistiming his finishing sprint up the Muur de Huy at Fléche Wallonee and a generally poor performance at the Criterium International. But these are minor complaints and do not constitute enough to suggest that Contador may be misfiring this year. The facts are that he has ridden four week-long stage races this year, winning three of them and finishing 2nd in the other (a race he said he wasn’t trying to win anyway).
The only other Tour contenders to have won a stage race at all this season are Roman Kreuziger who won the Giro di Sardegna way back in February and Ivan Basso who won an immensely entertaining Giro d’Italia. Both are team mates riding for Liquigas. Basso initially suggested that he would ride the Giro to win and subsequently ride the Tour in support of his team mates. But having won the Giro he has changed his tune sightly, now saying he hopes to win the Tour. Of the other Liquigas leaders, Pellizotti has been suspended due to irregularities in his biological passport and Vincenzo Nibali seems unlikely to ride the Tour having been called up to the Giro at the last minute. Kreuziger has made no secret of his intentions to find a new team for next year, so rather than support a rider who is planning to leave the team, it may in fact be the case that the Liquigas management will throw the weight of the team behind Basso yet again, who will be aiming to become the first man to achieve the Giro/Tour double since his compatriot Marco Pantani 12 years ago.
Cadel Evans has had a stellar season, and besides the riders mentioned above, is the only other contender to have won a race this season (not including stage wins in stage races) with his victory in Fléche Wallonne. History suggests that Evans performs better in his 2nd Grand Tour of any season. He performed admirably at the Giro finishing 5th and winning the points classification. He oft complained while at Lotto that he didn’t have a team to adequately support him during a three week Tour. He left Lotto over the winter to join BMC, who have shown they are certainly no better than Lotto when it comes to lending Evans support in the mountains.
I can’t help but wonder what Evans may have been able to achieve in his career if he had ever been part of a team built around him full of quality domestiques. Instead he finds himself yet again in a team which seems to be built more for the classics than the Grand Tours. But despite this, Evans seems used to it and proved highly capable at the Giro. So if it holds true that he’ll be better in the 2nd Grand Tour of the year, he has a real chance of becoming the first World Champion to finish on the Tour podium since Gianni Bugno 18 years ago.
Carlos Sastre has taken his slow steady build up to the Tour de France to unprecedented levels this year. He didn’t start his season until the Volta a Catalunya in late March. Between that and the Giro d’Italia, the only other race in which he partook was the one day classic Liége-Bastogne-Liége. The Spaniard is 35 now and further Tour success seems beyond him at this stage. Also, having suffered a herniated disc on his way to 8th place at the Giro, he looks unlikely to start this year’s Tour. Other riders who I mentioned in a previous post have suffered from illness or injury this year are Armstrong, Menchov, Vande Velde and Andy Schleck.
It’s worth noting that despite the addition of the cobbled sections in this year’s Tour, the only rider who decided to race a cobbled classic this year was Lance Armstrong who finished in the top 30 at the Tour of Flanders. Contador has been seen out training on the cobbles with former specialist Peter van Petegem. But nothing beats the experience of racing over them in race conditions which is why I find the lack of Tour contenders at the cobbled classics surprising. Particularly Bradley Wiggins, who usually opts to ride one or two cobbled races every year but decided to stay away this year. The Brit will be aiming to improve on last year’s 4th place. He’s kept fairly shtum so far with an underwhelming performance at the Giro. Perhaps a bit of sandbagging afoot?
Laurent Fignon said of last year’s Tour that it was like an episode of Columbo. We all knew that Contador was going to win the Tour but the entertainment lay in how he would win it. While Contador will again be the pre-race favourite, with so many contenders on such an array of teams, I can’t help but think the 2010 Tour will be more like Poirot, where we are all kept in the dark until the entire climax has unfolded in front of us.