The world’s greatest cycling event, and the most watched sporting event in Europe is a three week slog for all of the competitors.
But for the ‘maillot jaune’ challengers, the demands are particularly fierce. To have a serious chance of winning, you need the climbing skills of a wisteria plant allied to the speed in the ‘contre le montres’ (against the clocks) of a track cyclist.
It is a rare breed indeed that can be effective at both disciplines, hence the starting roster for Le Tour of pushing two hundred can quickly be whittled down to about half a dozen from a punting perspective.
In recent times, there has been monopoly ownership of the race, with first Miguel Indurain, the Spanish powerhouse, winning six Tour titles. Then, after just a couple of years’ respite, Lance Armstrong won an astonishing record seven on the bounce.
The strength of the American grip on the race was accentuated last year in controversial fashion when Floyd Landis won the race, only to be stripped of his title a few days later for testing positive for blood doping.
Doping in the sport is endemic, and – if you let it – it will kill your pleasure of the race. For my part, I choose to assume they’re all cheating and, therefore, the race is fair. As perverse as that logic is, it’s probably the most rational starting point.
Landis will not be here to defend his crown. Nor will Jan Ullrich be trying for a second triumph so many years after his first. Nor either will Ivan Basso grace the Grand Depart in London, the most obvious contender for the longer term mantle after Armstrong’s retirement.
All are banned or retired, and under a cloud of doping allegations, either acknowledged or otherwise.
But, for all the doubts about the health of the sport, and the missing combatants, the race remains – and always will remain – a unique sporting spectacle.
No other sporting event that I’m aware of places the same physical and emotional demands on its field. This in itself is the singlemost likely reason for such widespread drug abuse in the sport.
(Incidentally, lest you think that drug cheats in cycling are a new problem, be assured that since the time of Jacques Ancquetil and before, riders have openly acknowledged the use of barbiturates and amphetamines, as well as good old cognac, to get them over the mountains).
To this year’s race, starting in London for the first time, and the battle for the overall title of Tour de France winner.
The jolly old favourite is the second most famous Kazakh on the planet (after Borat, ahem), Alexander Vonokourov. The man is a big tank, his legs two titanium crafted pistons thumping down on his irons with unstintingly merciless, metronomic regularity.
As an athlete, Vino is by far the strongest man in the race (perhaps followed in by the Norse god, Thor Hushovdt), and he will not yield to any man in terms of the physical battle.
But for Vino, the problems are all under his racing helmet. The man is plainly psychotic! One of the most amazing things from the plethora of amazing things that make cycling the compelling spectacle that it is, is that some days you just have to let riders go flying by you, and accept that you will lose time to them in the overall ‘classement’.
This fact was never better illustrated than last year, when Floyd Landis had a bad day. A really bad day. As Floyd floundered, he was passed by the mountain goats from the peloton, a number of whom had real aspirations of carrying yellow to Paris.
Landis could barely raise a canter, let alone a gallop, as rider after rider passed him by. Having already lost over thirty minutes to the Spaniard Oscar Pereiro, who was not seen as a threat for the overall title, Landis collapsed on Stage 16, losing a further ten minutes that day.
And yet, miraculously (and allegedly by foul means), the very next day Landis produced one of the great solo rides in Tour history to claw back all but a few seconds of his deficit against the hapless Hispanic.
The final time trial was a strength for Landis and a weakness for Pereiro and, as such, the inevitable regaining of the yellow jersey was sealed in a truly extraordinary Tour.
That rather lengthy aside reveals how some times you have to lose battles in order to win the war. Our man, Vinokourov, I fear will never cede in a battle. He is a warrior, and he detests defeat.
It is a cliché in sport that some athletes only have themselves to fear, and my suspicion is that the Kazakh comet will implode at some point in the mountains, be they Pyrenean or Alpine.
So, the 5/2 favourite removed from our thoughts, we can focus on the remainder of the field with value assured. (Unless of course our man from Kazakhstan does the beeswax..!)
Vino’s key antagonists are likely to be all or a subset of Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans, Andreas Kloden, Alejandre Valverde, and 2006 runner up Oscar Pereiro.
My ante-post fancy, Damiano Cunego, has (sensibly) decided not to race this year. He won the Giro d’Italia and at 26 is still younger than the average Tour contender (28 to 32 is considered prime time). He’ll be back next year, and will be one to watch.
Enough of those who are not here, and onto those who are.
Oscar Pereiro probably had his chance last year and blew it. The fact is he cannot time trial and nobody wins a TdF without being able to beat the clock. He may very well win a mountain stage and, as a Spaniard, you should pay special attention to him in the Pyrenees, but he just isn’t quick enough when it matters to trouble the judge. A red line struck through the Pereiro then.
Cadel Evans is a very interesting entrant. The former World Champion Mountain Bike rider is a curious convert to road racing, and is hugely talented. As a mountain biker, he has a fine blend of stamina and raw speed, and can be counted on to rarely lose much time against his rivals.
His weakness, like Vinokourov’s, is mental. Unlike Vino though, his problem is one of being too conservative. Watching Evans, you always get the feeling that he’s hanging in there and saving a bit for another day. The problem is, I’ve yet to see the day when he’s used it!
2007 could well be Evans’ year, and he is definitely on my shortlist. A top six finish wager gives a cracking chance of a payout, granted fortune along the route (something which can be pretty hard to come by..!)
Carlos Sastre is many people’s idea of the winner. He’s certainly not for me, as his two key flaws are poor time trialling (an automatic scratch for me) and a conservative mentality. His consistency commands respect, but his win record is testament to his lack of aggression and his relative slowness in TT’s.
For me, the biggest conundrum of a rider is Andreas Kloden. I’m a huge fan of the German and perennially back him for a place (and perennially get paid out). Formerly with T-Mobile, and playing a supporting role in the team, this season he has moved to Vinokourov’s Astana team.
He is an excellent climber and a very capable time triallist. So why is he not a standout wager? Two reasons: firstly, although the pair have a bizarre dislike of each other bordering on hatred, he has a pact with Vino to be his ‘general’ this year, in exchange for Vino reciprocating in 2008 and 2009. Personally, I am confident that this relationship will never last that long, and it’s possible that if Kloden feels fresh and Vino self-combusts, he will take the reins this year.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, I question Kloden’s temperament and his consistency. He seems much happier in the supporting role, as per his alleged alliance with Astana this year, and he sunk without trace the year in between his silver and bronze medal finishes.
As a rider who has already finished second and third in Tours de France, his credentials do stand up to considerably more scrutiny than most though. A probable podium finisher, in my view.
Which just leaves us to consider the credentials of Alejandre Valverde. An immensely talented young Spanish rider, Valverde has yet to finish a Tour in two attempts. Although bad luck has played its part in this, facts are facts, and he is still raw and unproven over the full three gruelling weeks of the Tour.
Additionally, he is a relatively weak time triallist, and would need to be in the order of two minutes ahead of the best TT’ers after the last mountain stage to be considered the likely winner. (A time trial stage always precedes the final stage procession into Paris: it serves as a final opportunity for a rider to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, or vice versa in the case of poor Pereiro last year).
So there you have it. There are reasons why no rider is a standout to win this year’s Tour. Luck will play its part, especially in the first week, when the race cannot be won but it sure as hell can be lost. Crashes aplenty tend to occur and if a rider gets caught behind a pile up he can be three or four minutes down almost before a pedal has been powerfully pushed in earnest.
To be honest, I’m inclined not to strike an outright win wager on anyone. The spectre of drugs always leaves the worry that a rider could be suspended at any point as well.
My strongest advice is that I think Kloden and Evans are excellent top three wagers, and cast iron (bar a fall) top six punts.
Vino will probably win it if his head doesn’t always govern his body, and I wouldn’t begrudge him that, especially not to his face. The man has legs like tree trunks, and arms like legs!
What I do know for sure is that the race will have its usual mix of thrills and spills, classic scenery, tear jerking stories, and of course – the reason I watch above all others – phenomenal human endeavour in the face of the sheerest of sporting challenges.
The man who finishes last in Paris is a sporting legend in my book, those that beat him are in the pantheon of the sporting gods.
Catch all the action at http://www.letour.fr/2007/TDF/COURSE/us/index.html
Labels: Tour De France