Monday, July 21, 2008

Vive le Tour Encore

This year's Tour de France started out rather slow for excitement, especially if you're not a fan of group sprints after 200km of one or two long, but tragically flawed escapes. It's certainly no fun if you're a purist regarding doping (though the doping busts seem less dramatic this year than in previous years - it's mainly Italians and Spaniards who don't get it), but then you the purist would have quit watching the Tour in the 1920s. The stages in the Pyrenees this year seemed curiously absent the orange jerseys of the wiry climbers of Basque team Euskatel. Mark Cavendish showed he's the best in the final 100m sprint, then left the Tour yesterday to prepare for the Olympics. Cadel Evans showed he's a serious overall contender, as expected. Ricardo Ricco showed that he's a crook. But... there has been something missing this year. This is going to change tomorrow, as the riders move into the Alps and then on Wednesday with the two transcendently difficult climbs, the Col de Galibier and the famous Alpe d'Huez (tossing in the Col de la Croix de Fer for additional insanity).

The top six riders in the overall classification for the start of tomorrow's stage 16 from Cuneo to Jausiers are all within one minute of each other. Eight seconds separate the top three: Frank Schleck (maillot jaune for the moment), Bernhard Kohl, and Cadel Evans. Denis Menchov is fourth at 38 seconds back with Christian Vandevelde a mere second behind Menchov. Carlos Sastre, at 49 seconds back is a threat, as are the next four riders, though they've got much more difficult work to do in the Alps.

Cadel Evans, who wore the yellow jersey for the past five days until Frank Schleck took it away on Sunday, is the better time trialist of the bunch, meaning that everyone from the current yellow jersey, Schleck, on down to Alejandro Valverde (nearly five minutes back) are going to have to attack in the mountains. Schleck has to put further time between himself and Evans, preferably about two minutes. The 32-year-old American Vandevelde, a decent time trialist, has to hold on for dear life and try to gain primarily on Evans. Menchov could very well sneak through and build a gap. And Carlos Sastre, a great climber, has to pick apart the whole field of contenders. Evans, for his part, needs to stay close to the top five or so and the Tour should then be his for the taking. A major crack in the Alps and the yellow jersey is a nice Provence memory.

But what a couple of days in the mountains we're going to have. These are incredibly difficult attacking stages and with the times so close, the whole general classification could be turned upside down by Wednesday evening. I hope you appreciate this. This is probably the most grueling sport in the world and the next two days are the best it gets.

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