|Stage 19 Time Trial: Regnier-Durette / Macon|
This 50km time trial will be extremely important for the top fifteen riders in the General Classification. After three kilometers, the riders will have to take on the Cat 3 climb of the Cote du Fut d'Avenas (7.2km @ 4.4%). This will favor those time trial specialists with climbing skills like Armstrong (USP), Botero (KEL), Rumsas (LAM), Leipheimer (RAB), Hamilton (CST), and Gonzalez de Galdeano (ONE). This will also suit the climbers such as Beloki (ONE), Mancebo (BAN), and Heras (USP), who are looking to defend their GC positions with a good ride. After the descent of d'Avenas, the course is undulating and will suit power riders like Bodrogi (MAP) and Honchar (FAS) over the last 28 kilometers.
The last 30 riders will leave in 3' intervals. The trick will be for riders to hammer up the mountain but save enough for the last 28km. This course is perfectly suited for Armstrong. Botero beat him--barely--on a course that suited power riders in Stage 9; that won't happen on this course. Botero is a good choice for second, and he will likely retain his GC position (4th @ 10' 59") by the end of the stage. There will be a very interesting battle for the remaining podium spots in Paris between Beloki (2nd on GC @ 5' 06") and Rumsas (3rd on GC @ 7' 24"). Rumsas is a better time trialist, but it is unlikely he'll take the 2' 19" he needs to pass Beloki. Still, if Beloki has a bad day or bad luck, Rumsas could pounce and take 2nd in Paris. If either Rumsas or Beloki has a very bad ride Botero could climb up on the podium in Paris, though that is unlikely.
The battle for positions 5-11 on GC is wide open, as these positions are separated by a mere 2' 56". Teammates Gonzalez de Galdeano (6th @ 12' 12") and Azevedo (5th @ 12' 08") should do well, with the former likely to climb to 5th by the end of the stage. Leipheimer (9th @ 13' 58") should jump a few spots by virtue of his TT skills and the form he has shown in the Alps. Mancebo (7th @ 12' 28"), Heras (8th @ 12' 54"), Sastre (10th @ 14' 49"), and Basso (11th @ 15' 04") will have to put in stellar rides, and the competition between them for the bottom of the top ten is too close to call...it should be a blast to watch!
Other riders to watch for good stage results include Tyler Hamilton (CST), who has had an average ride in the Alps. The course suits him perfectly, however, and if he has any legs left he could finish in the top three on the stage. David Millar (COF) and Laszlo Bodrogi (MAP) are both in good form and have superior TT skills; if they can limit their losses over the climb, they could blister their way into the top five over the last 28km. Serhiy Honchar (FAS) vanished after his 3rd in the Stage 9 time trial, but he could reappear to put in another great ride. Jean Delatour rider Laurent Brochard has shown his good form throughout, and could pull a surprisingly high finish. The big dark horse, however, is Laurent Jalabert (CST), the great Frenchman who is looking to go out in a blaze of glory. He almost shocked the world in the Prologue; with his Polka-Dot Jersey for best climber and his red number for most aggressive rider, I'm predicting he will challenge Armstrong but fall just short, finishing in the top three. Go JaJa!
Stage 20: Melun / Paris Champs-Elysees
As usual, this flat stage of 140km will be a party until they hit the outskirts of Paris. They will ride together until they hit the Champs-Elysees, when as usual they will attack each other like hell for several laps. No breakaways will survive, as Telekom, Lotto, Credit Agricole, FDJeux.com, and Lampre will like the chances of their sprinters at the finish. Before Paris and between the wigs, champagne, photo-ops, and other sorts of grab-ass, there will be two fiercely contested sprints at 54km and 80km. The Points competition is tight, with "Rabid" Robbie McEwen (LOT) in the lead with 239pts just ahead of six-time defending champ Erik Zabel (TEL) with 238pts. McEwen is faster this year, but that's not necessarily what will make the difference in this competition. If McEwen wins the intermediate and final sprints, it's all over. However, Zabel is a cagey veteran with a stronger team, and could pull off the victory.
Despite his class and his great ability, I'm predicting that the cards are stacked against Zabel too much this year for him to win. Why? Because he will be facing the Aussie mafia, with "The Red Thunder from Down Under" Stuart O'Grady (CA) and rookie Baden Cooke (FDJ) both sprinting well right now. They could take precious points away from Zabel by finishing ahead of him, reducing his chances of a Green victory that much more. Zabel will go down fighting, but I'm predicting a celebration day for the Aussies in Paris: McEwen will win his first ever Green Jersey, and his compatriot Cooke--who has beaten everyone in a couple of the field sprints since they hit the mountains--will take his first Tour stage victory on the Champs-Elysees. McEwen will be Cooke's biggest rival for the stage win, and O'Grady, Zabel, and Svorada (LAM) will all be there as well. Of course, as we've seen all race, anything can happen...and that's especially true on the Champs-Elysees. Only one thing is certain: Armstrong will be in Yellow again. But you already knew that.