|The Yellow Jersey (General Classification)|
This year's GC race has been the closest since 1989, with the top three within 18" of each other leading into yesterday's stage to Luz-Ardiden. Of course, yesterday was as close as we've had to a decisive stage, and it looks like many of the GC positions are now pretty clear. However, there are still some battles to come over the next few days, where men are separated by gaps that could very easily disappear with a successful attack or a great time trial. Here is a breakdown of the GC battles to watch in the final week.
The Green Jersey (Sprints)
- Lance "El Jefe" Armstrong (United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor) and Jan "Big Diesel" Ullrich (Team Bianchi). Armstrong is in 1st on GC, but his lead over Ullrich is a mere 1' 07". Ullrich took 1' 36" out of Armstrong in the last time trial, so the top spot on the podium in Paris is still unclear. Though Armstrong has the upper hand after his attack on Luz-Ardiden, he will have to remain vigilant during the week (e.g. make sure Ullrich doesn't sneak out for any intermediate sprint time bonuses) and really bring it in the time trial to Nantes.
- Iban "Miracle Whip" Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi), "Bello" Ivan Basso (Fassa Bortolo), and Tyler "Nails" Hamilton (CSC). Mayo is in 5th, and has a 2' 43" advantage over 6th placed Basso and a 3' 37" lead over 7th placed Hamilton. Mayo is a decent time trialist and should hold onto 5th by Paris, but if he has a bad day in Nantes or one of his rivals successfully attacks he could slip a place. The 54" gap between Basso and Hamilton is precarious, and Basso will really have to have a good time trial to hold off the tough American. In the previous time trial, "Nails" took 2' 20" out of Mayo and 3' 17" out of Basso, so a top five finish is still a realistic possibility for Tyler.
- Francisco Mancebo (iBanesto.com) and Carlos Sastre (CSC). Mancebo is in 9th place at 16' 05", but he only has a 7" buffer over Sastre. Mancebo was 52" better than Sastre in the previous time trial, but Sastre has been the stronger rider since then. Sastre also has to beware of Mancebo's young teammate, White Jersey wearer Denis Menchov, who also lurks in 11th just 57" behind him.
The battle for this jersey will really heat up amongst the sprinters over the next few days. Baden Cooke (FDJeux.com) has a strong team and an 8 point lead over 2nd place Robbie McEwen (Lotto-Domo). However, Cooke has reportedly been sick and suffering for the past few days. The rest day may do Cooke some good; before the Pyrenees hit, Cooke and McEwen looked dead even in the sprints, and it would be a joy to watch these two members of the Aussie Sprint Mafia take their dual down to the wire in Paris. They will both have to watch their backs, however, as the big Norwegian Thor "Thunder God" Hushovd (Credit Agricole) is only 22 points off the pace. While Hushovd can't match up with Cooke and McEwen in the sprints, he is a hard man capable of going on the attack in a breakaway and taking a bunch of points. Veteran Erik Zabel (Telekom) is also a man to watch, as he is only 30 points off the pace. Zabel has put himself at the disposal of his GC man Vinokourov over the last week, and he could be seen helping his teammate at the top of some of the big climbs yesterday. With his great sprint and his experience, Zabel could still sneak in and win this thing.
The Polka Dot Jersey (King of the Mountains)
With the GC battle so close and so many men in contention for top ten positions over the past two weeks, most of the quality climbers have absorbed themselves in fighting the GC battle and ignored the King of the Mountains competition. This has provided an opening for His Royal Majesty, King Richard Virenque to sneak in and sew up this competition for a sixth time. His former Festina teammates Dufaux (Alessio) and Moreau (Credit Agricole) have been harassing him at the top of many of the climbs in the Pyrenees trying to move themselves up in this competition, but to no avail: His Worship simply has to cross the line in Paris now to complete his long-awaited return to his throne as King of the Mountains. With only Moreau in the top ten on GC and no real challengers for the podium, Virenque has given the French a homeboy that they can really cheer for over the last few weeks.
Now that the Tour is through the toughest mountains, I wanted to take some time and recognize some of the riders who have played the roles of domestiques and really put in stellar performances to help their teammates achieve glory. These men are all great riders in their own right, but for the Tour they have largely put their aspirations for personal glory aside to help the team. To all of these men I'd like to say, "You've done one helluva job!"
- Paolo Bettini and Michael Rogers (Quickstep Davitamon). Bettini is the Italian Champion, and he has shown his talent through several attacks in this Tour. Michael Rogers came in as a hot young favorite, and has spent much of his Tour attacking or riding at the front of a group like Bettini. Throughout, however, both have been working in the service of Virenque, setting the table for His Majesty's stage win, his stint in the Yellow Jersey, and his mastery of the Polka-Dot Jersey. Without these two men, there is little doubt that Virenque would have had a much, much more difficult time achieving all of his stunning successes in this race.
- Manuel Beltran and Jose Luis "The Punisher" Rubiera (United States Postal Service presented by Berry Floor). The entire Postal squad has had a brilliant Tour, but in the mountains these two riders have really shone the brightest. While super-climber Heras has been hampered by illness and a knee injury, Beltran and Rubiera have been rock-solid support for Armstrong on the climbs. It is not a stretch to say that Postal's acquisition of Beltran from Ullrich's squad right before the Tour may be one of the decisive factors in this race. Ullrich has often been isolated in the mountains, and if he had Beltran working for him instead of for Armstrong, this Tour might have had a different script. As it is, Beltran and Rubiera have been there setting a fierce tempo and helping their leader along through his frequent weak moments the last week. When Lance went down yesterday, Rubiera was right there to calm his leader; with Lance on his wheel, he then blistered badk up to the group of GC men where he promptly went to the front and set the pace until he blew. The selfless support of Beltran and Rubiera got Armstrong through his darkest moments, and with the rest of the brilliant Postal squad, they will now protect Lance's lead until the Nantes time trial.
- "Mad" Bradley McGee (FDJeux.com). He won the Prologue and wore the Yellow Jersey for a few days, but even when in Yellow McGee was giving it his all for his teammate Baden Cooke. McGee is a rider who could have charged off the front in pursuit of stage wins several times in this race. Instead, he has only attacked to take pressure off of his team, and spent the rest of his time right in front of Cooke. Whether it's leading Cooke out in the final sprints or pacing Cooke over the nasty climbs, McGee has been brilliant in his single-minded work for his Aussie mate. If Cooke goes home with the Green, he will owe McGee more than a few cold ones.
- Erik Zabel, Santiago Botero, and Giuseppe Guerini (Telekom). The script has changed for Telekom so many times in this Tour that it's hard to follow. Botero has had terrible legs and Zabel can't seem to take the Aussies in the sprints, and so the team has rallied around the powerful Alexandre Vinokourov in his drive for the podium. Yesterday was a perfect example: Botero went on the attack, giving his Telekom mates a free ride at the expense of US Postal and Euskaltel-Euskadi. In the pack, Zabel and Guerini were there with Vinokourov on the climbs, getting their man water and keeping him out of the wind as much as they could. When Vinokourov couldn't match the fierce acceleration of Ullrich on the Tourmalet, Botero sat up and waited. Then Botero and Guerini buried themselves on the descent and the lower slopes of the Luz-Ardiden to get Vino back into the group with the GC leaders. Vino was able to limit his losses and keep his podium position secure, but if he hadn't had those teammates to help him, it might have been all over for the classy Kazakh. The Tour hasn't gone the way Telekom would have liked, but they have improvised and managed to pull together an outstanding performance so far.