The first ten days of riding are over in the Tour, and yet there is still the sense that the real race hasn't started yet. The leaders have been shadow-boxing, trading handfuls of seconds back and forth, waiting and positioning themselves for the mountains. Sure, there have been some whose hopes for the GC were shot to hell in the first week, most notably the hapless Credit Agricole leader Christophe Moreau. Some others lost a bit more in the time trial yesterday than they would have liked, such as Levi Leipheimer of Rabobank. But to date, there have been no selective courses, no key attacks, no decisive moments in the Tour. The cries of some--that Botero's win in the Stage 9 time trial shows a chink in Armstrong's armor, or that the Spaniards will dominate U.S. Postal in the mountains--have the desperate ring of wishful thinking.
The Time Trial vs. The Mountains
Yesterday's time trial was not the showdown it was billed to be: it told us very little about who will be on the podium in Paris, and absolutely nothing about who will have good legs in the mountains. As Bobby Julich noted, the uphill and downhill sections were not as sharp as they looked on paper. Rather, they were gentle and sloping hills on wide open roads, with headwinds and crosswinds to batter the riders. The conditions favored those big-bodied time trialists who are power riders; those who excel on technical courses, or on courses with sharp inclines and descents, or who have smaller climber's bodies, were the ones who had problems yesterday. Thus men like Laszlo Bodrogi of Mapei-Quick Step and Andrea Peron of CSC-Tiscali flew to top ten finishes, and men like Tyler Hamilton of CSC-Tiscali and Levi Leipheimer of Rabobank struggled (Hamilton was also hampered by a flat in the last 20km). Yes, Botero and Beloki and Armstrong and Rumsas and Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano will all contend in the mountains. But riders like Sevilla and Hamilton and Leipheimer and Mancebo and the whole team of Euskaltel-Euskadi will be factors in the mountains, and may very well blow most of the current top ten riders off the leaderboard. Just look at the rider in 30th on GC today, Denis Menchov of iBanesto.com: he is only 5' 24" back on the race leader, yet he is a great climber who won the stage up Mont Ventoux in the recent Dauphine Libere. On the big climbs, 5' 24" is nothing. You could see a rider like Menchov shoot from 30th to 5th in one day. While the time trials have been entertaining, the leaders have only been separated by small spoonfuls of time. In the mountains, time will come in buckets.
The Heroes So Far
Before hitting the mountains, we have one more stage of glory for the flatlanders. With that in mind, we should pause to reflect on the heroes who have kept us watching the race while we wait for the big boys to come out and play. First there was young Swiss rider Rubens Bertogliati of Lampre-Daikin, who jumped from the pack at the end of Stage 1 to steal both the stage victory and the Yellow Jersey. He surrendered the Jersey on Stage 3 to Telekom's leader Erik Zabel, who was finally rewarded for all of his team's hard work at the front. Meanwhile, World Champion Oscar Freire of Mapei-Quick Step and Australian Champion "Rabid" Robbie McEwen of Lotto-Adecco took turns beating Zabel in the sprints that ended Stages 2 and 3. Estonian champ Jaan Kirsipuu found his legs to take an impressive sprint from a group of breakaways in Stage 5, and Zabel finally got his elusive sprint win at the end of Stage 6. While Freire crashed out in Stage 7, FDJeux.com's "Mad" Bradley McGee jumped from the pack on a finishing incline--much like Bertogliati in Stage 1-- to take his first victory after a frustrating 2001 Tour campaign. In Stage 8, Rabobank Tour rookie Karsten Kroon spoiled Bastille Day by taking victory in a breakaway that included three Frenchmen. Oh, and somewhere along the line ONCE-Eroski won the team time trial (Stage 4) and catapulted talented Spaniard Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano into the Yellow Jersey, a prize he still holds. And then there was that Botero guy.
In addition to the stage winners, there were a number of other riders who refused to ass-watch and who livened up the race in the first 10 days. Erik Dekker of Rabobank overcame his nagging leg injury and early crashes to power his teammate Kroon to victory in Stage 8. Jacky Durand (FDJeux.com), Franck Renier (Bonjour), Stephane Berges (AG2r Prevoyance), and Ludo Dierckxsens (Lampre-Daikin) were constantly up the road forcing the sprinters teams to chase like mad. Berges even managed to take the Polka-Dot Jersey for a day. The rest of the time, the climber's jersey belonged to Christophe Mengin of FDJeux.com, who attacked repeatedly to acquire, re-acquire, and defend his position. The sprinters' teams also did a lot of work, especially Telekom, Credit Agricole, and Lotto-Adecco. In the race for the Green Jersey, stalwart Aussie Stuart O'Grady (Credit Agricole) struggled, while his compatriot McEwen emerged as the main threat to Zabel in the sprints. So while the GC battle was boring in the first part of the Tour, the other battles on the road were heated, unpredictable, and exciting.
Resistance is Futile. The Peloton Will Be Assimilated.
There are certainly a plethora of talented Spanish teams with an armada of Spanish climbers who will light up the mountain stages. However, predictions of Spaniards swamping Armstrong are flawed in one key aspect: they ignore the fact that the best Spanish climber in the world is riding on U.S. Postal. Roberto Heras has shown time and again over the last few years that he is the class of Spanish climbers: 1) he won the Vuelta in 2000 on the strength of his climbing legs; 2) he rode with Armstrong (and past all of the other Spaniards) in key mountains stages of last year's Tour despite a severely injured knee; 3) he rode himself to 4th in the Vuelta 2001 with that same bum knee, only losing major time in the time trials; and 4) he spanked riders such as Beloki (ONCE-Eroski), Escartin (Team Coast), Mancebo (iBanesto.com), and Rumsas (Lampre-Daikin) in the Volta a Catalunya, the climbing-heavy race in late June used by most Spaniards on their way to the Tour . And the Spaniards who weren't there had already gotten spanked by Armstrong and Landis in the Dauphine Libere earlier in the month. Together with Rubiera and Landis, Armstrong and Heras have proven invincible in the mountains over the last two months (and the last two years), and those Spanish armadas have already been throwing everything at them.
Then there are the power riders of Postal. No other team with a GC contender can match the power on both the flats and the small climbs generated by "The Pensioner" Viatscheslav Ekimov, "Gorgeous" George Hincapie, Pavel Padrnos, Benoit Joachim, and Victor Hugo Pena. As I said at the beginning of the Tour, all of these riders are champions in their own right who happen to be working for Armstrong in this one race. Only U.S. Postal has the power to dominate the entire peloton on any terrain. And more importantly, they have been sitting on for most of the race, resting up while their biggest rival ONCE has been on the front for the last week in the defense of the Yellow Jersey. The class, depth, and diversity of talent on U.S. Postal is unrivaled in the peloton, and this will start to show in Stage 11. Johan Bruyneel, the director of U.S. Postal, has been saying for weeks that his team is built to win in the final week of the Tour. From my view in the Cube, it looks like Postal is poised and ready to open up a big can of Texas Whupass on all comers two days from now. I can't wait.
Revised Predictions and Conclusions
GC Standings in Paris:
Points Standings in Paris:
- Lance Armstrong, U.S. Postal. He'll win by over five minutes. He's motivated and angry, and now has a legion of doubters. Lance thrives when people doubt him.
- Santiago Botero, Kelme-Costa Blanca. He has yet to prove that he can maintain his strength for a full three weeks. He will pressure Armstrong, but won't be able to maintain it. Still, he will prove that he can go the distance and ride with the best.
- Tyler Hamilton, CSC-Tiscali. Hampered by his shoulder, strong winds, and a flat tire, his performance yesterday was actually quite good. He has yet to crash, and will blow the doors off of almost everyone else in the climbs.
- Raimondas Rumsas, Lampre-Daikin. It's his first Tour, but his all-around talent will land him a high placing in Paris. With more experience, he'll land on the podium in the future.
- Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano, ONCE-Eroski. His team has spent too much time on the front, and it will show in the last week. He is better than ever, but the talented field of climbers will push him back off the podium.
- Joseba Beloki, ONCE-Eroski. He is a great climber, but so are the people I've put ahead of him. He will lose too much in the time trials to men like Botero, Hamilton, Rumsas, and his teammate Gonzalez de Galdeano.
- Levi Leipheimer, Rabobank. He has good legs, but the course thus far hasn't suited him. He will rebound in the final week.
- Francisco Mancebo, iBanesto.com. He is a great climber and that will make up for his average time trial performances. He could end up higher in the standings if the leaders give him any slack in the mountains.
- Dario Frigo, Tacconi Sport. He will overcome his team's poor performance in the TTT, but not enough to make the top five.
- David Millar, Cofidis. He is ramping up to be a great all-around rider. This will be a great step in his progression.
Mountain Standings in Paris:
- Robbie McEwen, Lotto-Adecco. He said after Stage 9 that he was the fastest sprinter still in the race. He's right. It will be tight, but he'll dethrone Zabel.
- Erik Zabel, Team Telekom. His team is stronger than Lotto at this point, but McEwen is a half-wheel faster when it counts. His record run of six straight victories in this category will stand for a long time.
- Baden Cooke, FDJeux.com. If he can make it over the mountains, he will come a distant third and will challenge for a stage victory on the Champs Elysees.
- "The Flying Elf" Oscar Sevilla, Kelme-Costa Blanca. With teammate Botero going for the GC, he'll focus on the Polka-Dot Jersey. And he'll win it.
- Euskaltel-Euskadi. They have many riders who can challenge for the jersey...it's just a matter of who does well early in the mountains, and how much they decide to ride for this competition instead of stage wins.
- Richard Virenque, Domo-Farm Frites. Now simply a decent climber, he will be outclassed in the mountains. But his experience and his dedication will make him a threat.