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95th Tour de France - Answers or Questions
By Nick Bull
Date: 7/15/2008
95th Tour de France - Answers or Questions

95th Tour de France - Answers or Questions
Some crucial questions from the Tour's first half, while throwing up some issues that only time can determine. You see, in life, more often than not, there are more questions than answers...

There's this rather banal Radio quiz I occasionally endure when my iPod runs flat. The concept is simple; the Presenter hands partaking listeners an answer, and opens the phone lines for over-enthusiastic people to ring in handing him the question itself. All in all, it's a standard quiz show, albeit with the questions and answers in reverse. It's been going on for years, and I'm baffled.

You see, in life, more often than not, there are more questions than answers: 'Does my backside look big in this?' (no answers for that will do, it seems). 'Is she the one?' is another toughie, especially for the females who are approaching thirty. Slightly more ridiculous, and one of my favourites is still 'Is Disney World the only people trap operated by a mouse?'.

The Tour goes one step beyond that. Any roadside fan or expert can attempt to call what is going to happen in the race, yet things change so quickly in the sport. Predictions are either for the brave or the foolish. Ten stages into the race, some things are abundantly clear, others not so. Let's start with what we know.

1. Valverde will never win the Tour
There can be no excuses. If you ride a mere twenty-seven days prior to the Tour, you cannot make any claims about being tired from racing or how little time you had to prepare for the race. Thus far, Alejandro Valverde has not done that, yet it is clear that this race has passed him by. I do not believe it is a case of the Spaniard is burnt out from his efforts in the Dauphine; the Tour is simply a totally different race. This could well have been his best chance to stand on the top step of the Podium, alas his inconsistency has come back to haunt him.

Oscar Pereiro climbs with Vincenzo Nibali and Maxime Monfort.
Photo 2008 Fotoreporter Sirotti

The biggest tragedy in all this is that Oscar Pereiro may not finish in the top ten for the first time in his Tour career. He may well have the best July form he's ever had, yet having to sacrifice himself for a distressed team leader has hindered him greatly. The Spaniard dropped down nine places following yesterday's stage to Hautacam after he tried to bridge the gap up to the lead group once Valverde was dropped on the Tourmalet.

2. Garmin-Chiplotle are this year's Barloworld
Without exception, Christian Vandevelde is the rider of the Tour up to now. His quality and his strength he came 23rd in the Tour in 2006, having seen his team leader Ivan Basso kicked off the race before it had begun, and has completed four Tours along with two Giros and Vueltas in the past. When he signed for Slipstream last summer, team director Jonathan Vaughters stated: 'We're not the kind of team that's going to have a big solid GC leader', although having survived the climbs to Super Besse and Hautacam, as well as the stage to Bagneres-de-Bigorre, he definitely is the Team Leader.

The only thing missing for the team is a stage victory to top this all off; David Millar rode brilliantly to finish third in the Time Trial at Cholet, while Will Frischkorn went one better as he narrowly trailed Samuel Dumoulin into Nantes. This will all help Vaughters' quest to gain a ProTour license for 2009, the trick is whether or not they can repeat it in the future. Sadly Barloworld, who are missing Jan Mauricio Soler now, have been rather quiet. Moses Duenas, currently in 19th place, is their best bet to show the teams colours during the final eleven stages.

3. Cavendish is right, even if he says it himself
Prior to the race, Colombia's Mark Cavendish stated: 'The Tour sprints are a completely different style and all I know is that my wins show that I am the fastest there.' He has always been confident, sometimes to the point of arrogance, and some of the Italian riders he's encountered do not like his brashness. Filippo Pozzato claimed that he didn't 'respect other riders' during sprints......'he is dangerous because he never brakes and tries to go through impossible gaps'. Mario Cipollini wasn't impressed at the Tour of California, claiming that Cav 'hasn't figured out how to behave in the bunch'. Nonetheless, his progress from coming second on the penultimate stage of the 2006 Tour of Britain the first time I saw just how quick he is to taking two stages in both the Giro and Tour, has been monumental. The Italian's aren't all unsure of Cavendish; at the Giro Daniele Benati admitted: 'Cavendish is the fastest in the World in the last 50 metres of a sprint'. Indeed he is.

4. Prudhomme is pretty prudent.
Put simply, his route revolution is working brilliantly. Already two breakaway groups have managed to stay clear of the peloton on the flatter stages. Valverde's sprint in Plumelec, and the way he passed Kirchen, was mightily impressive, regardless of his current GC position. This finish is something the Tour normally glances over, and was more interesting than a Prologue. Hushovd took the honours after a very frantic final 10km into Saint-Brieuc, which again came from an unconventional finish.

Roman Feillu became the darling of France, albeit for a day, as his breakaway group resisted the peloton on a rolling course. The favourites for the Time Trial didn't show, simply because the route was rather different to a 'traditional' race against the watch. Adding a summit finish in week one has worked superbly in the Giro, and the final ascent up to Super Besse was dramatic Schumacher's problems/Ricco's surge were far more entertaining than a bunch sprint.

Having the climb of the Cote-de-Saint-Jean-de-Donne 9km from the end of stage 7 notched up the excitement levels far more than a simple run in into Aurillac would have done. Going back to Hautacam somewhere the GC guys would not have raced over since it's eight years since it was used was another good move, and paid off.

To think we've still got the Prato Nevoso and L'Alpe d'Huez to come...

This is all very well, however there are even more questions that remain unanswered:

1. Just how much has his crash effected Cadel Evans?
Yesterday's stage, in particular, has certainly raised a lot of questions. Before leaving Pau, Evans was a man of few words when the press surrounded him, and looked slightly uncomfortable. On the final climb, he looked in difficulty at the beginning and the end -was he bluffing?- but his explosive attack with around 7km to go initially caused problems for Menchov, Ricco, Sastre and Vandevelde. He remained quiet after this, raising a lot of questions. I believe he may be keeping his energy for this weekend, as the Alpes are reached. Conversely, he may be suffering more than his performance to Hautacam showed.

2. Can Silence Lotto defend Evans?
The prominent colours on the Tourmalet and Hautacam yesterday were those of CSC and Saunier Duval. The latter gained a lot from the work of Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara, yet both teams gained hugely. It was Voigt's driving on the lower slopes of the final climb that caused the leading group to become a mere handful. The CSC work in the Valley also prevented Alejandro Valverde and Damiano Cungeo from getting back on; while they inevitably would have been shed from the pack as the attacks began, this was a crushing moral blow. If Cancellara and Voigt and do this again at the start of the Mountains, and Andy Schleck and Carlos Sastre can do it further up, Frank Schleck is going to have a great chance of dislodging Evans.

Popovytch and Aerts on the Hautacam. Can they defend Evans?
Photo 2008 Fotoreporter Sirotti

At the same time, Leonardo Piepoli is still a competent climber and team rider for Ricco, while Juan Jose Cobo is emerging as a super-domestique. Sooner rather than later, the big attacks will begin, with Evans in the firing line. He had no-one with him on the final climb yesterday, while Yaroslav Popovych was shelled from the lead group on the early part of Super Besse. If CSC and/or Saunier Duval can 'gang up' on him, he will be made to work. People like Menchov and Vandevelde may even attack him they aren't going to sit on his wheel if they can help it.

3. Ricco going for more than the Polka Dot jersey?
While he has said it himself, I am not convinced that Riccardo Ricco is riding this Tour with the intention of stage wins and winning the King of the Mountains competition. Once Piepoli and Cobo had attacked on the final climb on Stage 10, there was no way he'd attack from the Evans group. He may also have been feeling the effects of a stunning victory the day before. I can't see him winning the race his Time Trial in Cholet was poor, and another, longer one awaits however a Podium finish cannot be dismissed. I believe this is Ricco's apprenticeship. He is the strongest climber in the World right now and, if he can improve his Time Trialing, a potential Tour winner. His hero, Marco Pantani, did just that, so Riccardo, it's up to you...

Ricco watches the race clock after his finish. Photo 2008 Fotoreporter Sirotti

4. How much more does Vandevelde have left?
I'd dearly love to see Christian Vandevelde continue his good form for the final eleven days of racing. The rest day has come at a good time for him, as he didn't look entirely comfortable as Schleck, then Evans attacked on the Hautacam. He has ridden consistently, and rose up the GC standings without significant attention. Now, unfortunately, he will be another target for other riders, especially as his team aren't (yet) equipped to deal with pulling on the climbs.

5. Can the race reach Paris without another positive drugs test?
'It makes me pissed off that anyone's surprised we've had a positive test,' David Millar stated after Manuel Beltran was caught with EPO in his blood. At the rest day last year one day earlier than the 2008 Tour all was going to plan, and it appeared that a clean race was emerging. However, before Stage 10, Patrik Sinkewitz's positive test for Testosterone hit the press, thus triggering off ten days of rumour, truth and a sport in disarray. Why Beltran doped, or felt he had to dope, is unclear, though it proves the tests are effective. However, it doesn't help the image of the sport and, in particular, Le Tour, and prompts comments such as the one found here in a highly respected British daily.

6. Are there any emerging Frenchmen in the Tour?
Things look bleak for the French; twenty-three years since their last Tour victory, they have only amassed one stage victory and assorted days in the Yellow, Polka Dot and White jersey. As of now, their highest rider in the GC is Sandy Casar, who is thirteen minutes behind Evans in 26th place. At the age of twenty-nine, he is hardly a rider for the future, and his 16th place finish in 2004 seems an age away. Yesterday's escapee, Remy Di Gregorio, is only twenty-two, yet does not seem to have the attributes to rank highly in the GC standings. If there any bright French hopefuls, I can't find them in the Tour this year...

So, I've helped you out a little. Hopefully the above will provide some food for thought. However, like that Radio quiz, the Tour is something which I'm yet to fully understand.

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