June 29, 2010

Just another race, right..? In many ways the Tour de France is just another bike race, after all the Giro and Vuelta last the same number of days, and often cover the same distance, and even have some of the same cyclists as the Tour. But that's where any similarities stop, for the Tour at its best is quite unlike any other bike race – and it is always at its best when the racing prior to the Tour has already been exceptional. Since I last wrote a blog here, the racing in the Giro, Tour of California, Dauphiné-Liberé and Tour de Suisse has been of such a special vintage that it makes this year's Tour even more exciting. Like a child who's discovered a bar of chocolate for the first time, we all want more and more of the best racing there is. I really believe this July will give us that extra dose of entertainment like never before - the ingredients are all there for the taking.

Consider 2009 – the brilliant victory by Contador that came in the face of in-team rivalry from Armstrong, and which led to Radio Shack being formed in direct competition to Astana. Consider that Armstrong wants better than 3rd in 2010, but that Contador wants to really hammer home his talent on a team that is totally his this July; Contador believes his winning margin in 2009 would have been doubled if he'd been allowed to race for himself. With all respect to Andy Schleck, I believe the battle between Contador and Armstrong will overshadow any other element of the great race and, not allowing for an accident putting one of the two 'stars out of contention, Contador and Armstrong will take 1st and 2nd places in Paris. 3rd place? Bradley Wiggins over Schleck – the Brit's time trialling on the penultimate stage will put him on the podium!

Of course the Tour is bigger than Contador and Armstrong and Wiggins put together. But it will not be until we have entered France on stage three, and after those nasty cobblestones have been dealt with, that the real Tour can emerge in its own right. A Prologue TT is always the perfect appetizer for fans and cyclists alike, but the stages that follow this year's Prologue carry an air of anticipation unlike anything seen in recent Tours de France. The north-sea winds that blew the Giro to pieces back in May will blow even stronger in July, and have a far greater impact when stage one of the Tour sets out from Rotterdam along the coastal regions and sea-bridges of Zeeland. This is where Contador will face his great first challenge from Shack, Saxo, Rabobank, Garmin, Sky and any other team determined to unseat the spindly climber before he has a chance to work his own magic. Survive he might, but Contador has a worse obstacle in his way two days later – the feared cobblestones of Paris-Roubaix.

The Tour will be exciting whatever the outcome is after stages one and three. But if Contador has lost significant time on one or both stages, then a whole new race will unfold. If his expected time losses only amount to a minute or two, then his rivals' efforts will have been wasted, for Contador can win a few minutes back in the Alps, even before the Pyrenees have even been reached. But if such losses amount to four or five minutes in total, then the challenge facing Contador will be far greater – it is that sort of time difference Armstrong and his co-conspirators are aiming to achieve. Everyone has something to gain by crushing Contador early-on. Consider that Wiggins, Menchov, Cancellara, the Schlecks, Hincapie, Devolder, Farrar, Hushovd – the list is endless – all have ambitions for the yellow AND green jerseys. And that Cavendish and Vande Velde might become their victims as well if the racing is that fast and furious!

The Alps at first look to be easy – that's a very relative word – but on closer inspection the Tour is crossing some big mountains on the way south. Morzine-Avoriaz will hurt a lot of contenders one week into the race, followed by a very heavy Alpine stage the next day where the Col de la Madeleine is to be climbed from the north for the first time since 2001. Even so, there'll be a lot of shaking up to be done on the G.C when the Pyrenees begins its four-day play at the start of the 3rd week.

If the weather stays as hot as it is right now, the effect on a peloton barely acclimatised to heat after such a cool spring is going to be startling. Armstrong might spend time in Hawaii, Wiggins may have moved to Girona in Spain for the higher temperatures, but it is Contador who stands most to gain if it gets very hot. The big question is how much time he has to make up, if any, because of those first stages in the North. Well, the Col du Tourmalet will be the Mont Ventoux of 2010 – and anything can happen on its fearsome slopes!

There are other people in this Tour aside from my favoured few, for the Tour always throws up wonderful surprises – it wouldn't be the Tour otherwise! Carlos Sastre is not the man he was in 2008, yet he always comes on strong in the 3rd week; the Spaniard will almost certainly lose considerable time on stages one and three and could side with Contador if it was in his best interests to. Let's also think the unthinkable – that Alexandre Vinokourov could become a top GC contender if things go his way. The punchy Kazakh could stay with the big boys on those opening stages, for I do not believe he'll be asked to help Contador at such an early stage. Imagine if Contador loses a few minutes to Vinokourov on the cobbles. Then imagine what tactics Astana could employ in the Pyrenees - Vinokourov attacks, Shack chases, Contador counters…or not! Is there a secret plan amongst Astana to get Vinokourov on that final podium, even at Contador's expense?

I fully expect the 'Spanish armada' to come to Contador's aid if he needs them. Caisse d'Epargne, with no Valverde but with Luis Leon Sanchez, will be Contador's closest ally against a combine that might form between Shack, Saxo, Sky and Rabobank. Euskatel used to side with 'Postal and Discovery, but they too might help Contador this July, for with Caisse dissolving end-2010 a lot of Spanish cyclists will be looking to Contador for employment in 2010. One man who used to side with Armstrong is Ivan Basso, winner of this year's Giro and a potential favourite for the Tour if he has recovered in time. His Liquigas squad is armed with big men for the flat stages and sparrowy climbers for the mountains, and we may see a remake of the 2004-2005 Tours where Basso and Armstrong rode as one against their many rivals. Which is why the long TT near Bordeaux might yet decide the final podium.

Despite the enormous rivalry between the top men, this Tour will have several other faces to it. Tyler Farrar is getting faster at sprinting, and his Garmin team have the right lead-out men now. If, if, Cavendish is below his best, the sprint-finishes will have a whole life of their own, with Hushovd up there to get points for the green jersey and a dozen other hopefuls locking arms and elbows as well. This will be a Tour more French than normal, for how well have France's cyclists already performed in 2010? Cofidis, FDJ and AG2R are lining up for opportunistic stage-wins, several of them, in a race that might become 'blocked' by the bigger teams' ambitions… The Lance-factor is certain to bring thousands more to the roadsides to watch, maybe more than in 2009 when American tourists were un-prepared for his comeback. As well as a fully psyched-up Lance – one rumoured to have re-found his climbing accelerations of old - they'll see the greatest sporting event of this summer, regardless of the football world cup and Wimbledon tennis. I expect the scenic highlights to be the hoped-for sunflowers between the Alps and Pyrenees, as well as the climbs of Madeleine, Aubisque, Soulor and the double-ascension of the Tourmalet. Not to mention Paris herself. Be there or be square..!

- Graham Watson

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