In 48 hours the first stage of the Tour will be over. Even now the cyclists are preparing; most of them having converged on the environs of the Passage du Gois already. Andy Schleck is checking his luggage to see if he can find where he left last year’s form; Alberto Contador is just finishing up his last course of clenbuterol so it will all be out of his system for the first drug test–all of it, this time. The sprinters are wondering where Robbie McEwen is, after all those years of Tour competition. New riders are imagining how they’re going to be feeling in about 17 days as the Tour enters its final, especially grueling week.
A week from now some riders will have withdrawn with injuries from the crashes that are bound to come in the early, nervous days of the race. Others will have left with illness. One of them will probably not be George Hincapie, the American rider for BMC Racing, who will be starting his 16th Tour. This year’s ride will tie him with Joop Zoetemelk for the most postwar starts. Hincapie’s team “leader” is Cadel Evans, a long-shot contender for the overall victory. I think long-shot because Evans has always come up short in the Tour, finishing a distant second twice but never convincingly contending for the lead. He’s a bit emotionally unstable and has never had the strongest supporting team; Hincapie should help this time, but not enough.
One looks through the TdF rosters of the competing teams, and one finds few riders who seem credible candidates to ride beside Schleck and Contador over the three weeks of challenging stages. Samuel Sanchez might do it, but his team (Euskaltel-Euskadi) is not too impressive. Others like Brad Wiggins of Sky might have a claim, but he is unconvincing for the long haul. Possibly Jurgen van den Broeck if he continues to improve (he’s 28). In all likelihood it will be between Contador and Schleck. And Andy Schleck has shown little sign of being in contending form all spring. We’ve seen the same thing before, of course, with Lance Armstrong. But with Armstrong the sense was that he was holding back, riding within himself, never letting it all hang out. Schleck’s 2011 spring has been full of tentative and inept performances that do not give the appearance of controlled consistency. Perhaps that’s because while the overall performance of Schleck’s team, Leopard-Trek, has been impressive (UCI #2 team ranking as of May), it is not the sort of team that suggests a great Tour effort. The DS (“head coach”) is unproven in Tour tactics too. However, in Fabian Cancellara Schleck has a support rider who is among the very best time trialists and strongest lead riders in the world (in 2009 Cancellara kept Armstrong out of the Yellow Jersey by a fraction of a second with a superb performance in the Team Time Trial).
Armstrong’s last team, Radio Shack, has many skilled veteran riders, but nobody who’s going to be duking it out with Contador by the time they get to the uphill finish at Plateau de Beille on Stage 14. In fact, unless Andy Schleck surprises, I think Contador will win the Tour by a margin of more than 5 minutes, and that Radio Shack will capture the “best team” prize. Sprinters? Despite the rule changes about points awarded for sprints, it’s Mark Cavendish until proven otherwise.
In 1999 Lance Armstrong picked up valuable time on the Passage du Gois (Stage 1), a slippery, slimy causeway that’s underwater at high tide. he went on to win his first Tour. This year the racers will be neutralized until they’re on dry ground, when the competitive riding will begin. But the very first stage will end on a Cat. 4 (low-level) climb, so the first day of racing will tell us something about the competitive mettle of everybody.
I’m up for it! The 23 days starting Saturday are bliss for the bike racing fan. Let the fun begin!
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.