Mmmm-mmm! Le Tour de France! C'est delicieux, non?
Aujourd'hui mes beautés, we take a look at one of the most delicieux things about Le Tour: the competition for the Maillot Blanc!
But first, a few notes: the links to the riders' names go to brief video introductions from the official Tour de France Website (www.letour.fr), and similar introductions from all the riders in Le Tour Delicieux can be found, like these, in the video section there called "Trombinoscopes". Believe me when I tell you, ladies, that this page makes for some very charming viewing!
You will need RealPlayer to watch the videos linked here, and if you don't have it, you can download it for free at www.real.com. Enjoy!
The Maillot Blanc Has a Good Eye!
In recent years, the Maillot Blanc has certainly had an unerring eye toward the delicieux. Last year's best young rider was the charming Denis Menchov, while year before that, Bello Ivan Basso! In 2001, fresh-faced little Spaniard Oscar Sevilla (and his rosy cheeks), and in 2000, Francisco Mancebo. Marco Pantani wore the Maillot Jaune in Paris twice, and the boy who would later become Der Kaiser, Jan Ullrich, wore it for three straight years.
This year's Tour has been especially rich in young talent, with the young men of the peloton showing themselves to especially good advantage on the podiums of France. Clearly, the Maillot Blanc has an eye for, uh... talent, so what better way to enjoy the rest day than to consider the charming young creatures in the running for white?
The Road Thus Far
Demonstrating a laser-like ability to pinpoint scrumptiousness, both the Maillot Blanc and the Maillot Jaune went straight for Fabian Cancellara, when the young Swiss rider outpaced Big Daddy Armstrong by just 2 seconds at the Prologue in Liege.
Cancellara, at 23 years old, started his first tour with a huge victory, and his emotion brought us straight into the epic beauty of Le Tour; but it could hardly be considered wholly surprising that he would do so well, because Fabian Cancellara also started his first tour with some rather impressive palmares. Born in Bern, Switzerland in 1981, and riding as a professional since 2001, Cancellara was a two-time Junior World Time Trial Champion by the time he was 18. In 2002, riding with Laszlo Bodrogi, he won the GP Eddy Merckx, a two-man Time Trail effort, on that occasion, putting 54 seconds into the Armstrong/Ekimov combo in 5th place. This year, Cancellara has won stages in the Settimana Catalana, the 4th stage Time Trial in the Tour de Luxembourg, and a stage of the Tour of Qatar. He's known for his strength against the clock, and is a big powerful rider with a fast finish.
Cancellara held the Maillot Jaune for two days in Le Tour, and as tradition would have it, the Maillot Blanc was kept warm for him by the man nearest him in the youth classification. On stage one, that young man was Tom Boonen. Boonen, at 23 years of age, has been riding as a professional since 2002. This season, rather impressively, he is the second most prolific winner of races behind sprint-miester Alessandro Petacchi. Boonen's boyish good-looks belie a strength that is quickly focusing itself into a sprinter's killer instinct. Quick to call himself a novice and a student of his elders, Boonen will be hard to beat as a sprinter and a Classics rider when his experience matches his talent on the bike. Boonen would go on to his first Tour victory on Stage 6.
Boonen would wear the Maillot Jaune for Cancellara only once, as Stage 2 gave us White Jersey Cozy number 2: FdJeux.com's Bernhard Eisel.
The Borrowers: Tom Boonen, Bernhard Eisel & Sandy Casar
After Thor Hushovd's victory on stage 2, Fabian Cancellara would continue to wear white until the Team Time Trail on stage 4, where Fassa Bortolo's less than brilliant performance in that event gave the jersey to T-Mobile's Mattias Kessler. Kessler, 24 years old, and professional since 2000 was carried to victory by T-Mobile's performance in the Team Time Trial, but his tenure in white would be brief, as stage 5 saw the breakaway that gave us the gigantic pleasure of the beginning of Brioches La Boulangere's new superstar, Thomas Voeckler's, tenure in both the Maillot Jaune and the Maillot Blanc. Voeckler has been doing the Maillot Jaune proud for 10 days to the delight of millions of cycling fans everywhere, and while he has been busy with that duty, FdJeux.com's Sandy Casar has worn White.
The Fabulous Baker Boys
Is there anyone out there who can resist the incredible charm and courage of young Thomas Voeckler? In this column, we have been singing this young Frenchman's praises for days. He is the current leader of the G.C., and the youth classification, with a healthy 8:29 lead over his nearest rival for white, Sandy Casar. Voeckler has ridden with courage and grit, and without a doubt produced the most heroic performance of Le Tour Delicieux thus far when he struggled on sheer will, delirious with the effort, and managed to keep his Maillot Jaune on the Plateau de Beille. Voeckler, at 23, has been a professional since 2001. He is the French National Champion, and won stage 4 of the Route du Sud this season, but nothing in his palmares could have prepared us for his brave defense of the Maillot Jaune this past week.
Voeckler currently leads Le Tour by 22 seconds over Lance Armstrong, but the young rider is realistic, telling Eurosport earlier this week: "I'm not fooling myself. I know I'm not a threat for the big guys on this race; I'm not at their level. When the race hits the hills, it's going to be tough. But believe me, I won't throw in the towel. I'll gut it out in this jersey as long as I possibly can." Gut it out he has done, but the jig is nearly up, and there's little doubt that Voeckler will succomb as the race enters its murderous last week in the Alps.
Voeckler has vowed to fight just as hard for the Maillot Blanc over this last week, and if any young man deserves to have his picture taken in front of the Arc de Triomphe at the end of this race, it's Voeckler; but what could stop him? Well, his relative weakness in the Time Trial, for one. Voeckler is obviously a gutsy climber, but he finished in 141st place in the prologue, 42 seconds behind Fabian Cancellara. Voeckler will have to fight hard in the mountains and give it everything in the two remaining battles against the clock to keep his rivals for the Maillot Blanc at a distance, as all of them out-performed the little Frenchman in the prologue. It's also possible that Voeckler's efforts in the Pyrenees could have taken the edge off of his form, but everyone worked hard in the Pyrenees, and who has more heart than this kid? There can be no doubt that he's found a strength he never knew was in him, and perhaps it will give him wings to Paris.
Who are Voeckler's rivals? Well, two of them, potentially, are men on his own team: Jérôme Pineau and Sylvian Chavanel. Pineau is currently 5th in the race for the Maillot Blanc, 14:48 behind Voeckler, while Chavanel, the likelier challenger of the two on paper, is further back in 6th at 15:09.
The Baker Boys: "Ti Ti" Voeckler, Sylvian Chavanel & Jérôme Pineau
Hopefully, these two teammates will support Voeckler in his bid for white, as they are both a long way back, with strong challengers ahead of them; but if Voeckler has a bad day, we've seen ample evidence in this tour of how much time can be lost in one day on the mountains. Chavanel, especially, may be a man to watch.
Tour de France regulars may remember the 25 year old Chavanel as the lone breakaway man Armstrong passed on the way to his dramatic victory on Luz Ardiden last year. Chavanel has had some excellent results this season, including overall victories in the Four Days of Dunkerque and the Tour of Belgium, and going into this year's tour, the expert eye would have picked him to shine, but he's been put into the background a bit by the performance of his young teammate, and though he's tried to strike out on the breakaway, he also returned to the peloton to pace the beleaguered Maillot Jaune on the Plateau de Beille.
Voeckler's Brioches La Boulangere team have gotten way more than they bargained for in this Tour de France, but they have defended his lead creditably, and will no doubt continue to do so, but they have a couple more bullets in the chamber should Voeckler's efforts get the better of him.
The Most Likely Suspects
Voeckler's nearest rival is FdJeux.com's Sandy Casar, who is currently 8:29 back from Voeckler, who has been in the borrowed Maillot Blanc since stage 5. He's a proven himself a fairly strong climber, and was around 10 seconds faster than Voeckler in the Prologue, but all things being equal, if both riders' form holds, Casar is far enough back on Voeckler that catching the leader will be difficult. Casar gritted it out on La Mongie, and Plateau de Beille, but admitted to being put into a (Say it like Paul!) spot of bother by the pace being set by the Postmen.
FdJeux.com Director Sportif Marc Madiot is proud of his young rider, though, and looks to the future: "Sandy is learning from these mountains," says Madiot, "he still makes mistakes in his gear ratios, and expends too much energy, but this Tour de France will bring him a lot." Sitting currently at 10th in the GC, Casar already has a lot to be proud of.
Voeckler will face tougher challenges from the likes of Domina Vacanze's Michele Scarponi, Illes Balears-Banesto Vladimir Karpets, and QuickStep's Michael Rogers.
The Challengers: Michele Scarponi, Michael Rogers & Vladimir Karpets
Michele Scarponi, 25 years old, and professional since 2002, is the man with the most impressive palmares in this group, with a stage and an overall victory in the Course de la Paix, where he took leadership on the mountainous 4th stage and endured terrible weather and repeated attacks to keep his lead, as wells as a stage and the overall in this year's Settimana Ciclista Lombarda, and a stage in the Settimana Ciclistica Internazionale Coppi-Bartali.
A strong climber, and not a bad time trialist, Scarponi is currently 22nd in the G.C. and 4th in the youth classification 14:22 behind Voeckler, and he's many pundits' favorite for the Maillot Blanc. Scarponi fared 17 seconds better than Voeckler in the Prologue, and had a great day on La Mongie, coming in 8th, inly 1:20 down on Armstrong and Basso. Scarponi went into this year's tour dreaming of a stage win, and saying that he would prioritize winning a stage over conserving his energy for a strong G.C. result.
What of the white jeresy? "Why not, but it's not something you can race for specifically." says Scarponi, "You become the best young rider when you are riding well in the overall classification, so one comes with the other. Maybe it's something to win to have a nice souvenir from the Tour." He could shine on Alpe D'Huez, and if his form holds, he'll be the man most likely to challenge Voeckler's lead for he Maillot Blanc.
Vladimir Karpets wore the Maillot Blanc briefly in last year's Tour de France, and he could be a factor here again. He put in the best performance in the prologue out of the contenders for the Maillot Blanc, coming in respectably in 30th, 22 seconds behind Cancellara. 2004 saw Karpets taking the overall in the Vuelta a la Rioja, and he made the podium in both the Volta Ciclista a Catalunya, and the Vuelta Ciclista a Aragón. He also finished 15th on both La Mongie (1:59) and Plateau de Beille (6:06), and the tall Russian can both climb and time trial.
Finally, there's Michael Rogers: 25 years old, and professional since 2001. Victories in the Tour Down Under in 2002 and in the Tour of Belgium, Tour of Germany and Route du Sud in 2003 announced the young Australian's enormous potential as a stage racer. There was plenty of groaning and gnashing of teeth last year, watching this bright young man forced into the service of Richard Virenque's KOM bid, but he did that service admirably. This season has been less sensational for him, but he's a strong man, and it will be interesting to see how he fares on the Alpe D'Huez. Rogers will be looking to climb up into the top 20 in this year's tour. Right now, he's at 26th, 18:08 back on Voeckler, and 7th in the youth classification.
Qui Est le Plus Délicieux?
Phew, with all that out of the way, let's get to the important topics!
We at Crazy Jane's copy desk can't help but pull for Little Tommy Voeckler. After his heroic, and extra-delicieux performance of the past few days, it's hard to want to see anyone else wear white to Paris. As soon as he finishes, he can just take his cute little self and GET IN THE BASKET; but, as you can see, this is hardly a motley crew of homely boys!
We quite like floppy-haired little moppet Michele Scarponi (Italians! Always a delight!), and Sandy Casar has his charms, too. I would venture the opinion that, like last year, Mr. Karpets might want to rethink that hairdo, the length of his sideburns, and the surgical precision of his facial hair configurations, but he's got good raw material. Sylvian Chavanel, widely held to be the young French hope, has a beautiful name and looks like all the jocks I went to high school with; and Michael Rogers is cute and Australian, so no doubt he can use that accent of his to good effect with the ladies...
But, here's the main thing: If Voeckler wins, it will be the result of having given a performance of rare beauty, and hanging on to deliver more of the same. If one of these other young things takes the prize, Voeckler is far enough ahead that he will have ridden a brilliant race, and either way, it's going to be DELICIEUX!
Vive Le Maillot Blanc!
Achtung, race (& boy) fans! Don't forget to send me your picks for the Delicieux distinction! We need all the help we can get over here, so e-mail me your choices at email@example.com, or post your comments at Le Tour Delicieux!