This is the week anxiously anticipated by all college basketball fans. National and regional bicycle championships are being raced all over the world and le Tour de France ("the Tour") commences this Saturday, July 3rd, with an 8.9 km prologue around Rotterdam.
Many USA sports fans who follow only this race rather than the sport of professional cycling likely get the bulk of their information from televisions The Versus Channel. There are many good things to be said about the way that group provides cycling coverage for the USA, but the casual viewer needs to remember that Versus is a ratings oriented mechanism and that for the past few years ratings in this country have born a direct relationship to Lance Armstrong. Versus has gone to great lengths to high lite Lance every time he has raced the past two seasons and has suggested that this year's Tour will be nothing more than a show down between Lance and his former teammate and protoge', Spain's Alberto Contador. Controversy also makes for great ratings.
Armstrong v. Contatdor is one possible scenario, but it should not be accepted as the most likely. Rather than puppet the Versus hype, I would like to look at some of the various announced teams and try to analyze how some of them might be expected to perform.
Other than Lance Armstrong, Christian Vande Velde who rides for USA the based Garmin-Transitions team, probably is the American with the best chance to win this year's race. Fans had high hopes for home boy Christian in 2009 after he had finished fourth in the Tour the previous year, but he simply did not have the legs to win when it really counted. His chances are further compromised by the fact that his team will hope to win at least one stage supporting their American sprinter, Tyler Farrar.
By way of explanation, the race is run over 21 distinct course on 21 separate days. The portion of the race that is ridden on each day is called a "stage." The overall winner of the race is the rider who finishes the entire, three-week race in the shortest cumulative period of time. That person is called the General Classification ("GC") winner. The overall lead usually changes hands several times during the course of the race and the leader at the start of each day wears a yellow jersey.
There are several other very important races within the GC race; one of the most important being the battle to be the winner at the end of each day's stage. Some stages are ridden over mountains and others over primarily flat land. Most teams have a sprinter on their roster whose specialized task is to produce an explosive burst of speed over a short distance at the end of these flat race days to try to capture that day's stage.
The race to win the GC is a battle of attrition as much as anything else, and every ounce of energy a team's riders expend to try to help a sprinter win a stage takes away from that same team's capacity to help and protect their GC contender for the full three weeks. Any team that divides its support between both a GC contender and a sprinter in a three week race has virtually doomed.
Christian will enjoy a strong support team this year, including Julian Dean, Robbie Hunter, David Millar, Ryder Hesjedal and reigning US Time Trial Champion David Zabriskie. Unfortunately for Christian, it seems highly unlikely he and his team will be able to produce a podium position (meaning one of the top 3 GC riders at the end of the race). As much as I like him, both as a rider and as a person, I will be surprised of Vande Velde is able to reach his dream of winning the Tour, especially given the strength of this year's field. He would be one of my two, out-side hopes however.
While on the subject of American teams, let's look next at one of last season's most successful teams, HTC-Columbia. They will be led this year by my sentimental favorite to win the GC, Aussie Mick Rogers. Rogers was the virtual leader on the road in the 2007 Tour when he had a very dangerous crash on a mountain stage and suffered a broken collar bone that took him out of the race. He was lucky in a sense because Rogers could have died if he'd flown over that guard rail and plummeted down the side of the mountain. Rogers will be helped over the mountains by youthful German phenom Tony Martin, Kanstantsin Sivtsov (winner of the Brass Town Bald stage of the 2008 Tour of Georgia) of Belarus, and Belgium's Maxime Monfort. Montfort and Martin both have been riding very well this season.
Unfortunately for Rogers, HTC-Columbia also is the riding home of Britain's Mark Cavendish (both shown in the photo above), perhaps the best sprinter in the world right now. After enjoying an extraordinary win last season that included six stage wins in the 2009 Tour, Cavendish has experienced a number of medical problems that resulted in a slow start this season. "Cav" also is missing George Hincapie, the reigning US Road Champion, whose experience was invaluable in helping the Columbia lead-out train navigate through the crowded finishes all last year. Columbia's stated goals are to help Cavendish win the Green Sprinter's jersey and Rogers win the GC yellow jersey. If they strive for both they likely will win neither in this year's very talented field.
Speaking of Hincapie (photo at right), he will be riding this year in support of the man I expect to win this year's Tour, reigning world road race champion, Aussie Cadel Evans (photo below). After several years with the Silence-Lotto team where he was forced to share team goals with renowned sprinter Robbie McEwen, Evans moved to the BMC team where he was assured that supporting his efforts to win the Tour would not be compromised. Hincapie is aging but he is the only person who rode in support of every one of Lance Armstrong's 7 Tour de France victories and his strength and experience should prove invaluable to Cadel. Evans has been riding much stronger and more aggressively this season than in any other I've followed and I'm hoping the World Champion rainbow jersey on his back will push him to new heights in this year's Tour. Other notable riders supporting Evans will be Italy's Alessandro Ballan (former world road champion), German Marcus Burghardt, Switzerland's Mathias Frank, and Dutch riderKarsten Kroon. BMC does not appear to be fielding one of the strongest teams in the field, but I am hoping they and Evans will find a way to produce an extraordinary result.
No list of potential Tour favorites can ignore Team Saxo Bank and Luxembourg's Schleck brothers, Frank and Andy (left). Fabian Cancellara (a/k/a Spartacus) from Switzerland almost certainly will win the first day's prologue and wear the yellow jersey until the race enters the mountains. Andy Schleck has struggled a bit in the mountains this season. Perhaps he has been holding off in an effort to peak for the Tour. With support from experienced riders like Jens Voigt, Stuart O'Grady, Matti Breschel, Chris Anker Sørensen, Jakob Fuglsang and Nicki Sørensen, it might be difficult for Andy not to at least earn a podium place, if not the entire race. If anyone is fairly new to racing, I suggest you carefully watch German Jens Voigt any time he find himself near the front of the race. Voigt does not have the prettiest riding from in the world, but his old-school, muscle his bike over the mountains style always seems to produce a high lite or two during the Tour every year.
Giro d'Italia winner Ivan Basso and Roman Kreuziger will be co-leaders of this year's Liquigas-Doimo Tour team. If the team's Director had not elected to leave this season's biggest breakout rider, Slovakian Peter Sagan, off the team he probably would have been the odds-on favorite to win this year's white jersey that is awarded to the best GC rider under 23 years of age. Liquigas is fielding a very strong team and their chances of winning the GC cannot be discounted.
Rabobank will be led again this year by Russian Dennis Menchov (right), Dutch youngster Robert Gesink, and three time world road champion Spanish sprinter Oscar Freire. My guess is that Menchov's or Gesink's best chances of winning the Tour would require that either of them capture the yellow jersey late in the race because I am not sure the team built around them will be strong enough to protect them from a field of this caliber.
Cervelo Test Team will again be led by the 2008 Tour winner Carlos Sastre of Spain and Norweigan sprinter and 2009 Green Jersey winner Thor Hushovd (right). Sastre has not shown his best form this year, but he always seems to find a way to grimace himself over the mountains in a position that gives him a chance to win the race. As much as I'd like to see Cavendish win the green jersey this year, in the absence of Tom Boonen I'm not sure Thor won't take it again this year.
If Cadel Evans cannot win the Tour, then I think I'd like to see Team Astana's Alberto Contador (left) of Spain win it again, but he will have his work cut out for him. Kazak rider Alexandre Vinokourov, who is just returning following his two-year suspension for blood doping violations, is Alberto's best supporter. Many fans will be watching to see whether Vino will be content to stick to his supporting role. If he does, then his help could be formidable, but after him the talent level drops quickly. Contador probably is the most capable rider in this race, but he is young and does not enjoy the support of a very strong team. If Alberto does wear yellow again in Paris it will be a testament to the young Spaniard's willingness to adapt and to the leadership of Directeur Sportif Lorenzo Lapage. I would love to see Contador at least finish ahead of Lance Armstrong again this year. I never attended a single team meeting, but I never appreciated the way Lance and Johan Bruyneel treated Alberto during last year's Tour. What 24 or 25 year old man would not feel threatened if his Directeur Sportif had gone out and hired his best friend and seven time Tour de France winner to come and compete for the leadership of the team he had been promised he would lead.
The most experienced and probably the strongest team in this year's field is Team Radio Shack, the new from the USA consisting primarily of the best rider's from last year's Astana team who all were cannibalized to help support their leader, Lance Armstrong. (As my father once asked, if he rides a bike why isn't his name Lance Legstrong?) Johan Bruyneel is thought by many to be among the best team directors in the sport today. Johan loaded his team with long-time Lance supporter Yaroslav Popovych from the Ukraine, two former Tour podium finishers in German Andreas Kloden and USA's Levi Leipheimer, and long time Terry McEwen support rider Chris Horner (seen at right above helping a competing rider reach the end of a stage in this year's Tour of California) who also hails from the USA. Just to add insult to injury, Lance announced earlier today that he would retire again at the end of this season and that this would be his last Tour. If Lance is not doing all this just to try to harm Alberto Contador, then he might as well go ahead and do it anyway because it sure looks like that is his primary objective this year.
Lance Armstrong was a great rider, and he might prove to be one again during the next few weeks, but I am ready for him to ride into the sunset and leave the sport to the next generation. I wish him no ill and I would love to see Chris Horner ride on a Tour winning team (Levi already has accomplished that feat), but not at the price of seeing Lance wear yellow on the podium in Paris one more time. But that's just me.
No matter who wins, this promises to be an exciting tour because it is filled with talented riders. I know this is a hoops website, but if even one of you can learn how to appreciate pro-tour cycling while watching this year's Tour de France then all my typing (however ignorant the opinions expressed may be) will be more than worth it.