My assignment, gentle readers, is to give you all a rundown on the favorites for the Tour de Georgia, but as I began, I decided that I might actually want to bring up some diverging currents that flow through the term "favorites."
Of course we all know what is proposed by the naming of "favorites" when that word is used in a sporting sense: it means that the big studly guys named in connection with that term can, in the educated estimation, be expected to flex their muscles and make their mark on the event in question. But, there's another kind of favorite, too, and without resorting to a tiresome old dictionary, it means that which is especially preferred and enjoyed.
The interesting thing is that the task of writing a preview in which race favorites are predicted with an educated air is like the testimony of an expert witness; it is meant to be an un-biased report on what we can reasonably expect when the elements at hand are brought together. It must be written by one who has done one's homework, and can be supposed to have some insight into the matter. In short, though it is a speculation, it must be presented with some semblance of objectivity and disinterest.
Strange, then, how opposite is the notion of preference, which, negatively formulated, gives us the egregious journalistic flaw of favoritism, but which I prefer to think of more charitably as appreciation. Those of you who have had the (I know, I know - it's debatable) pleasure of reading previous columns hunted and pecked out by this writer will kindly remember that my topic has always been that of our second kind of favorite - appreciation of the style, grace, sportsmanship and color of this beautiful sport and its often delightful participants. In short, my dears, I am a fan of cycling, and like any fan, I have my favorites.
"So what? What have you got now," you may be asking. Well, as I sat down to tackle today's assignment and surveyed the lay of the land, so to speak, I noticed two things: the first is that the favorites in that soberly objective sense are pretty clear, so let's get that out of the way, shall we?
The world's most famous Postman, Lance "Big Tex" Armstrong is the toughest mofo in the sport, and he's in Georgia, blessing us with a rare stateside appearance. Even if he is, as he says, in questionable condition, questionable for him might be better than fully operational for most. He's downplaying his fitness and chances - not, he reports, 100%, or 100% sure what he's dealing with in terms of competition, but I think we can suppose that if he guns for the win, his effect will be not unlike that of the proverbial death star, it's power trained on the poor bastards who dare to oppose him. We know Lance is training his guns (you know the ones) on this little trip around the lovely state of Georgia, but if he's also setting his sights on the win, I think we can safely say that some other guys are going to be in a world of pain.
Is that "game face," Lance, Or is George in trouble?
Lance has some firepower with him, too. George Hincapie may be dead, dead, dead tired after his yearly assault on the bergs and cobbles, but he's still George frickin' Hincapie, and there are some of us who think his many strengths are tellingly revealed in shorter stage races like the one we're queuing up right now. Plus: Viatcheslav Ekimov, people. Enough said. If the field stays together for the first three stages, as I believe it will, and one of these bad boys time trials into the lead, all he'll need to do is show some tenacity in the hills that follow, and there could be trouble for the rest of the field.
The obvious challengers are no secret to the cycling cognescenti. The Lance will be hard fought by a resurgent Bobby Julich, who has found that mysterious quality we cycling journalists like to glibly refer to as "form": that elusive combination of fitness and confidence that gives a man the hope that he might ride for victory. Dear old Bobby's standing up a bit straighter than he has in years, and bless his heart, he's gunning for the win with a team that's riding high on a string of successful contests this season. His teammate, Jens Voigt, is a big, killer hammer, too. In fact the whole CSC team is looking pretty tough and chock full of guys you don't want to mess with. Jakob Storm Piil always rides strongly in the US, and Max Sciandri is along for the ride, as well.
Meanwhile, here in the relative backwater of American Road Racing, we have our own big gun: the inimitable, the unstoppable, the bald and freckled wreaker of havoc on American roads - you know him as the recent winner of nearly every major U.S. race this season and last, (and really, we could go back further than that), ladies and gentlemen, defending Tour de Georgia Champion, Chris Horner. Horner may be disadvantaged where is his team is concerned, as he is one of the few members of the Webcor Builders Professional Cycling Team who doesn't hold down a real world job. Having said that, if anyone knows how to squeeze the best out of any team, it's Horner, and never a shy one, he has already made his intentions known: he's here to defend the title, and will be satisfied with nothing short of victory. Further, Horner reports that he "has the legs." Don't we know it. Horner's team won't be able to control the race, and Horner himself faces the big test of measuring up to his Euro-racing brethren, but he's scrappy, confident, strong as an ox, and I would really be surprised not to see him put on one heck of a show.
One other man must be mentioned in connection with any list of favorites in this particular race and that is the name of Mr. Show himself, Mario Cipollini. I'm sure I'm not the only one hoping for a fabulous costume or two, and while he's at it, I'd love to see a good old-fashioned butt-kicking, just like the days of yore, in the sprint stages.
Wow. Mario Cipollini. Words fail me.
Cipollini's been a bit off his game lately, but Il Rey Leone has brought with him a team with him that is well-versed in the art of providing his highness with an armchair ride to the finish, and with lead-out rockstars like Giovanni Lombardi and Mario Scirea (both capable of polishing off a sprint in his own right). I think he's going to be tough to beat in the bunch gallop against the current line-up, and I say that with all due respect to my dearly beloved American speesdsters. His main competition will likely be HealthNet's saucy and fast Gord Fraser, Colavita-Bolla's Cuban Missile, Ivan Dominguez, and Perhaps Navigator Vassili Davidenko or Henk Vogels, Webcor's Charles Dionne and Jelly Belly's Alex Candelario. Those guys are hot, but frankly, race fans, I like Super Mario's chances.
In addition to the aforementioned overall contenders, I'd add that we could see some of Jittery Joe's Cesar Grajales in the climbs, if we're lucky, we could get some kind of a suicide breakaway from Landbouwkrediet-Colnago's Jacky Durand, and in the Time Trial, we might want to keep a look-out for his U23 TT World Champ teammate, Sergei Lagutin. I know I'm missing some guys, but there you have it.
And for the Record: Oh Yeah, Baby
So much for a relatively sober presentation of the most likely suspects. Did you all notice how I said Lance Armstrong, Mario Cipollini, Jens Voigt, Bobby Julich, George Hincapie, Giovanni Lombardi and Viatcheslav Ekimov are IN GEORGIA? Is everyone aware of the myriad charms of the likes of Chris Horner, David Clinger, Gord Fraser, Alex Candelario, Ivan Dominguez and Mike Creed? Can I just say how much this RULES?
Race fans, we are in for a treat this week in more ways than one, and this field, dare I say it, is striking me pretty damned hard as mmmm-mmmm good. That's right, kids, I would even call it delicious. Ladies, are you aware that even as you read, there is a regular horse and pony show of well-placed lycra holed up in the humble town of Macon, GA? Oh yes, it's true, and one look at today's podium is evidence enough.
I think we all know how much Jens Voigt is a huge favorite with this race fan.
Today's podium: DELICIOUS!
Click for larger image.