A slight confession this year. I have spent the last three weeks travelling in England, working and visiting friends. Totally delightful. So it is only today, the day before, that I am writing about the Tour. As a result this first bit will be a little bit less than complete. In fact, I am writing it on a plane heading for home. Never did that before, so it feels a little weird. Apology over.
By the way, tell anyone you know about this blog. I write and have written it for close to fifteen years, and I do it for fun or because I am obsessed. But I also write it to become famous and to be able to follow the actual live Tour, with a press pass, because of a connection I make through this blog. Maybe I could write a book, but certainly fulfil my dream of being a 'real writer' and 'real Tour reporter'. So if you tell everyone you know who might like to read this blog, I might become famous and I might meet someone who does the right thing to make my dream come true. So pass it on.
The Tour looks pretty good this year. But I always say that. The route is generally considered to be harder than last year, no team time trial to mess up the results for a few contenders, only one fairly long individual time trial at the end of the race. Maybe more mountains, although there are arguments about that. A very heavy duty three days in the Pyrenees, during the last week. So far no last minute exclusions. The beauty of the Tour, besides being a media spectacle of global dimensions, is that everyone who can be there is there. And they are serious! No one is using it for 'training' for another race. All the riders are ready, or should be.
The overwhelming and almost unanimous favourite to win is Alberto Contador. It is rather difficult to make a case for any other winner, but if one tries, there are maybe ten guys who might do the job. So if they ever get together and attack, no one knows how Contador will respond and whether his team is strong enough to help him out. But he should win. He is possibly the best climber in the race, and possibly the best time triallist on a given day, so it is hard to figure how anyone can beat him. Nevertheless, anything can happen. The first few stages hold some traps for any contender, including Contador. For example, the first stage along the windy coast of the Netherlands, the second stage with some hilly bits at the end, and the third stage which has something like 13k of cobbles, not easy for a light guy like him. Even if he wins, he often does it with a sense of beauty and panache so it won't be quite so boring as some styles of winning recently.
So who are the guys that might beat him. First on the list are the Schleck Brothers. Last year Andy, the younger one, came second, so there is no reason, other than his lack of clear form up to now, that he can't do the same, or maybe better. His main problem is that he can't time trial, or up to now he has fared poorly. The other reason is that he does not seem capable of dropping Alberto on the climbs, more the other way round. His brother is a fine rider, finishing fourth last year. He seems in good shape, and should have a good Tour. The only problem with these brothers is that Andy keeps looking behind for his brother and does not really attack if his brother can't. That may change. Lance might do something, but I doubt it, too old, not good enough. “All of Britain” wants Bradley Wiggins to do well, but the general view is that he just is not good enough to beat enough riders in the mountains. We shall see. Two guys in their thirties who had terrible Tours last year MUST have better ones. No one knows how well Dennis Menchov, the Russian, is dong this year, but when he is on form he can climb with the best. He has a young teammate, Robert Gesink who is capable of much, but has not yet demonstrated it for three weeks. He might take over if Menchov flops. Then we have Cadel Evans who has become even better in recent years, and is capable of very fine time trials and also with keeping up with MOST of the climbers. Evans has a terrible team though and probably will be in the top ten and no better. Another 35 year old guy is Carlos Sastre, the Spaniard, and winner of the Tour two years ago. He is capable of climbing superbly and time trialling badly. He will certainly be visible, maybe taking a stage, but it is highly unlikely he will do better than top ten. Two other, even older guys, whose job is to support Lance are capable of good work and strong Tours. But few think that Klöden and Leipheimer will be allowed to do a great job for themselves. The last two riders I will mention are both on the same team. Ivan Basso and Roman Kreuziger are often not listed as top ten riders, but sometimes are listed as riders who might make the podium. The reason for this is that in recent years, not many riders have done well in the Tour if they have exerted themselves in the Giro. Basso won the Giro this year, and most people think he cannot do well in the Tour. I have always been a fan of Basso and if I had good odds on him, I would bet on a podium finish. As for Kreuziger, he is seen as number one helper for Basso this year, even though he might be allowed a bit of freedom if Basso blows it early on. Their team, Liquigas also has some quite strong riders, although three of the best are not riding the Tour. There are more outsiders, but we will talk about them later, the ones I have mentioned are the obvious ones.
As for the other jerseys, it is harder to find an overwhelming favourite. The green jersey, given for the rider who gains the most points at the finish of each stage, that is, finishing in the top ten on many stages. Usually they call this the sprinters jersey, and in the Tour it is almost always won by a sprinter. The major favourite is Mark Cavendish, the young, slightly outspoken Manx lad who won six stages last year, but lost the jersey to Thor Hushovd, the more experienced Norwegian. The difference was in one stage where Cav got disqualified, probably fairly, for poor sprinting behaviour. Those points made the difference. Neither Cav or Hushovd have shown much form this year, not many wins for either, so it is not at all clear that they are the only possibilities. For example, the young American sprinter, Tyler Farrar is given a good chance if he gets lucky and the others really are not in good shape or are inconsistent. As for other sprinters, not many think there is any sprinter who can beat all three of them, although beating one or two and finishing in the top three is possible. My outsider for this jersey is Edvald Boasson Hagen, a young rider with an injury filled, troubled season, who can climb and sprint, no one yet knows what he can do in a three week Tour or when he is more mature. I think he is brilliant, but he might not be strong enough (serious injury problems this year as well) to finish the Tour. There is also Tom Boonen, but somehow he is no longer a pure sprinter and is unlikely to do more than win a stage. The same goes for Oscar Freire, who is the wily old geezer, winner of three World Championships and who pops up every now and again on a stage. He probably won't finish the Tour, and in any case, probably won't do well enough day after day. He IS good though, another outsider.
The mountains jersey is a complete mystery. In fact, I just bought another mag today when I got home, and looked for their predictions. Not even a mention of the jersey, and I am sure they knoew it existed. The Cycle Sport mag I got in England had a very short article, very short indeed, entitled 'Who's going to win the polka-dot jersey?' All the article had was a profile of all the mountain stages, without mentioning a single name. We really do have to wait for the first two climbing stages, maybe much later, to see who is actually interested. In the recent past, there has been little competition for this jersey. One rider, a good climber, tends to make an early bid, get over a number of climbs worth many points, usually in a break, and then hang on for the victory. One good mountain stage with lots of climbs, and no mistakes later, usually wins the jersey. The rider is usually one who does not have any responsibilities to help a possible yellow jersey contender on his team, and who can, of course, climb. I am not sure it is even worth mentioning many names, we just have to wait and see who makes the first big break over the bigger climbs. In case you wondered, I have picked a Spanish rider, Rodriguez from the Katusha team to do the job, but it is just a guess. I looked through all my mags before sending this off, and it amazed me that some of the Tour Guides did not even MENTION the mountains competition. I guess it was embarrassing to admit they had no idea at all who would win. Maybe someone will win by accident, just because they do well in the mountains, like Contador.
As for young riders, those who are 25 or younger, very few do not think that Andy Schleck will win it. The main reason for this is that he is meant to one of the very serious challengers to Contador for the yellow jersey. That is, unless something happens, he should finish on the podium and therefore be the highest placed young rider. There are some outsiders who might finish higher than Andy, but it is very unlikely. For example, one complete outsider to watch, just to see if he is ready, is Pierre Roland, a Frenchman. But as I say, how he could beat Schleckette is not at all clear.
That pretty much takes care of the jersey competitions. One additional interest in the Tour is that I will be managing six teams and picking a winner for each stage. These teams are already picked, registered and there is nothing I can change. These teams are on three different Fantasy Cycling games, so the rules for each need not trouble us here. If anyone cares to know more they can drop me a line. On one forum I will be picking a rider for every stage, and do that every day. Pressure, responsibility, victory! One of my teams has only riders older than 35, another is a team of riders who are meant to be worth few points, that is 'cheap' riders. Yet another team is composed of all French riders, as a similar all Italian team was picked for the Giro. The last of the four teams is my 'real team', the one picked most carefully, and with which I hope to beat everyone on my forum and many others. At present I am doing really well, second on our forum and something like 35th out of five hundred others. It does depend on luck, wisdom, knowledge and … mostly luck. You can easily pick a guy who crashes in the first stages or just does not have a good Tour. In the Giro for example, all my sprinters disappeared by the end of the race, and one of my climbers crashed early on. Still did well though. In a general sense I chose to have only two sprinters in my real team, when I usually pick three. So I have seven riders for the General Classification.
Here is Team Occitan for 2010. If you don't know how Fantasy Cycling works, it is not terribly important. But one gets so many points or so much money, each rider is worth a number of points or amount of money according to one or another system, and you pick your team to win the most stages, place highest on GC or whatever scores the most points.
Edvald Boasson HAGEN
Alberto CONTADOR VELASCO
A recent mag had four experts pick the podium. They all picked Contador and A Schleck for first and second, and then picked Evans, Menchov, Wiggins and Leipheimer for third. I guess third and lower are up for grabs, according to the pundits.
In more general terms, there a number of 'stories' that are likely to run throughout the Tour. One of the stories is, of course, Lance Armstrong. He is the biggest media figure, but not the best rider, in the Tour. He claims this is his last Tour. In his comeback last year he managed to finish third, which was way beyond what serious analysts (not Lance fans, but more balanced people) thought at the beginning. Some still think he can win, but if he does, it will be the biggest surprise and the biggest Hollywood ending for any cycling career ever. But I cannot figure any way at all that he can beat Contador AND all the other contenders. He really is not THAT good. Maybe he will finish in the top five, but more likely in the top ten. He has really not shown much form lately, although his performances in the last two races he rode were his best of the year. So he might be peaking perfectly, and has a terribly strong team with maybe three other guys who could finish in the top ten, Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer and Janis Brajkovic (a young guy you have never heard of, but who won the Dauphiné, a major warmup race for the Tour, beating Contador). In addition he has riders who can climb and protect him a bit on the hard flat bits. Of course he also has experience, vast experience, of the Tour. His major drawback is that he is 38 or is it 39. He is just getting too old to ride the younger guys off his wheel. His climbing has been pretty good, and his time trialling has been vaguely all right. No one really knows. I will not mention anything about doping, but many think he has been and still is using drugs. More about that if it comes up in the Tour itself, otherwise I hope to never mention doping at all, certainly not now. I know it exists, but I am so weary and bored by discussions about it that I hope nothing whatever comes up during the Tour. But if it does, my views are simple. If you catch them, bust 'em. Keep testing, but otherwise stop all the chatter.
Another drama will be the supposed 'battle' between Lance and Alberto. Last year, Lance and Johan Bruyneel (the team director) gave Alberto a really hard time during the Tour. Lance and Alberto were on the same team. Without going into details, Alberto contended that the non-cycling moments of the Tour were harder than the cycling ones. In my view Lance acted exceedingly poorly. No doubt if the least action passes between them, the papers and TV will make note. I suspect it is a non-story, but being Lance, everything he does is a story.
Another story will whether anyone can drop Alberto on the climbs. Plenty will try, and if Contador ever gets dropped on a stage by anyone who is challenger for the yellow jersey, all commentators and observers will get very excited. We shall see.
The story that will dominate the first stages is loss of time on the first three stages. The first stage, after the prologue on Saturday, goes along the seacoast of the Netherlands for a goodly part of the way. We are expecting big winds, which will force the riders to break into echelons, little diagonal lines of riders which take account of the winds coming from the side. The echelons can only be as wide as the road, so they can only contain maybe thirty riders, or even less on some of the roads going on top of the dykes in the Netherlands. The next twenty are behind the first thirty. As the gaps increase, the riders can be further and further behind. So any contender who loses his place, could lose many seconds even minutes. The second stage has quite a hilly end, so lucky, fit and clever contenders have room for attacks that could also gain many seconds. The third stage has several sections of cobbles, usually a disaster for light riders, like the many climbers who have to traverse the cobbles, normally a practice they avoid at all costs. Some of the climbers have heavier, stronger riders to help them through these days. The others will lose time. In addition, riding the cobbles is dangerous, in wet weather, utterly dangerous, leading to crashes that are sometimes not the fault of the injured rider. So by the end of the third stage, one or more contenders might have lost all chances to win the Tour, in fact, might have crashed out with injury. Although there are no mountains in the first sections of the Tour, the stages that take the riders through Belgium and the Netherlands before returning to France could be rather eventful. Well worth watching on the box than the usual flat stages that begin the tour. Some say it is foolish to have a route like that, ruining the chances of good riders, but I think it might provide a pretty good TV spectacle, even if it does mean some contender is out.
The prologue is tomorrow, a medium length one, just over 8k. It is utterly flat, but is meant to be rather technical. That is, lost of turns and curves and tricky bits. The weather will obviously affect the race, as if it is wet many riders might not take chances on ruing the Tour before it begins, and therefore won't go as fast. As to who might win, there are numerous candidates. The first is probably Fabian Cancellara, generally acknowledged to be the finest time triallist in the world. Right behind him are a couple of English speakers, Bradley Wiggins and David Millar. I think Bradley might well win, but I doubt Millar will. In any case, there are also guys like Tony Martin, David Zabriskie and more who might well have a good day, or get lucky. Should be fun to watch, but unless someone gets really unlucky, the results should not have a big effect on the Tour.
That is about all I can manage before the plane lands. Then I have mess about with trains and buses and a ride from the Beziers station. I won't get home until late, without having had my nap, and with a football match to take a look at before I go to bed. Most importantly I have to chat a bit with my wife, who has gracefully done without my presence for the last three weeks. Being on your own in a two person house has advantages and disadvantages. So sorry not to be able to quote odds, to give you more details and to say much more about the rest of the course. But this gives you a rough idea.
I guess I could add that we are going to see the Tour at the 'classic sprint finish' in Bordeaux, as well as the time trial immediately after on the second last day of the Tour. We get to see a few of the French relations too, although none of them are Tour fans, so I think blog coverage, near the end of the Tour, might be a bit sparse. Otherwise, with this trip, the teams I am backing, my blog, watching the French TV coverage, going swimming with my wife several times a week, reading the various sites and l'Equipe every day, as well as keeping up in the garden and riding my bike a bit, I should be busy for three weeks. Hope you enjoy it as much as I do.
One last thing. Many of you might not be able to get coverage by your usual means, or you might not lie the coverage you get. In the last two years I have discovered watching cycling on my computer, which has a big screen. Should that be of some interest, then go to http://www.cyclingfans.com/ and it will tell you every day what audio and TV coverage you can get. So even if you are at work, you can watch on another screen or window. This site gives you coverage of any cycling race all year around. So you will not be dependent on the inevitable national biases of your local TV.
Catch you tomorrow, after the prologue.