Ah, yes, it's that time of year again. Time when the legs are shaven and the rides are long and the sun sucks the strength right out of your body. It's summertime, and that means that the world's greatest cyclists are gathering in the land of the Gauls to punish each other for more than three long weeks. Throughout the race I'll be working the tickers and sizing up the hams with my daily Jambon Report. Anything can happen in the race: sickness, accidents, crazy fans, all have had an impact on this race in the past. Why, it is sheer folly to attempt to predict who will prevail with so much uncertainty pervading the future. So here's my annual folly-fest, where I size up the GC contenders and place my bets on who will be at the front on the Champs. Feel free to laugh when I'm proven wrong.
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION: THE TOP TEN
- "Grandpa" Lance Armstrong (Discovery Channel). The way some people are talking about Lance, you'd think that he needs a walker just to get from the bed to his bike. Age and that little crash last week won't slow old Gramps down a bit. The geriatric wonder, who is approaching a doddering 34 years of age, will reach down into his back pocket and bust out that big can of Texas Whupass one more time to show the young whipper-snappers what is what. He will miss the injured Ekimov in the team time trial and (more importantly) near the finish of the flat stages: Eki and big George Hincapie have been able to put the hammer down and rival the sprinters' leadout trains for the past few years, and that has kept Lance out of a lot of trouble. And who can forget what Eki and George did to those little climbers on the cobbles last year? But the Discovery Channel team is still insanely strong, and Lance is a rider with no weaknesses (time trialing, climbing, descending, power-riding on the flats, flying over cobblestones… he is a master of it all). He may be getting a bit long in the tooth, but he's still Lance. And that means that he's still better than anyone else at riding a bike.
- Jan "U-Boat" Ullrich (T-Mobile). Anyone who saw the complete butt-kicking that Ullrich gave the field in the 1997 Tour de France knows what this man is capable of. And he's a better rider now: his time trialing is stronger, his descending is vastly improved, and he's still got a big motor in the mountains. The big question is, how much time will he lose to Lance on the first uphill finish? Every time Jan has faced Lance in the Tour, Lance has gained huge chunks of time on the first uphill finish. Jan takes a while to get that mountain motor going, and Lance has always used that opening to bury the big German. So if Jan wants to win, he's going to have to be ready to climb from the get go. And from the looks of that anchor he was dragging around the mountains at the Tour de Suisse, I doubt he'll be ready. If he is, strap it on people: it will be a war that we'll be talking about forever.
- Levi "Button Fly" Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner). Levi has been a solid GC rider over the past few years of the Tour (not counting when he crashed out in 2003) turning in top ten finishes, and this year he has really stepped it up a notch. As he showed in the Dauphiné Libéré a few weeks ago, his time trialing is stronger and his climbing has more pop than in the past. He's always been a rider to get stronger as the race gets longer, and with quality men like Georg Totschnig, Fabian Wegmann, and Beat Zberg working with him in the mountains, I'm betting that he's really going to pull one out of the hat.
- Santiago "The Battler" Botero (Phonak). After two miserable years with the pinkos of T-Mobile, Botero has once again found his form in green: his victory in the Tour de Romandie and his 2nd in the Dauphiné shows that he is once again ready to threaten the top of the Tour de France. Botero has won mountain and time trial stages of the Tour in the past, and he finished in 4th on GC in 2002 with the Kelme squad. With Botero's all-around ability, he could easily climb higher if (big if) he's able to put together a solid three weeks of racing. The year he came in 4th, Botero lost around 15' on the climb of Mont Ventoux alone. If he can avoid a similar debacle this year, the sky is the limit for the talented Colombian. But I'm thinking he'll have one bad day, just enough to keep him off the podium.
- Alexandre "The Great" Vinokourov (T-Mobile). He finished on the Tour podium in 2003, but he missed the race last year due to a crash in the Tour de Suisse. This year he looks to be on form again, as he rode a strong Dauphiné coming in 5th on GC and winning the stage that finished on Mont Ventoux. Sure, he'll be riding for Ullrich, but you can bet T-Mobile will send Vino out on his patented mountain attacks to put the pressure on the Disco boys. All the men I've put above him will take time from him in the time trials, but if he can make good on an attack or two in the mountains, he could once again threaten for a place on the podium.
- "Pretty Boy" Floyd Landis (Phonak). Floyd has had at least one very bad day every year he's come to the Tour. Of course, it wasn't that noticeable before because he was riding for Lance. This year, as a protected rider, he will be less likely to suffer a really bad day. He is a strong climber and a stronger time trialist, but like his mate Botero, his biggest challenge will be consistency. If Floyd can put together three weeks like his monster rides in the Alps last year, he'll be a threat for a top placing. With the incredibly stiff competition in this year's race, I think he'll do a great job and make us Yanks proud by coming in the top six.
- Ivan "Bello" Basso (CSC). Basso is an amazing talent who is coming into his prime. He was third in last year's Tour, but he didn't ride the Giro. This year, with all that Giro suffering already in his legs, the great Italian climber will be unlikely to dual with Armstrong through the mountains again. He has improved his time trialing and will likely win a stage, but the likelihood of Basso having a full three weeks without a big bonk doesn't seem likely. And that is really too bad: as he showed in the Giro, he could really push Armstrong and Ullrich if he was at his peak.
- Iban "Miracle Whip" Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Mayo comes into this Tour as the biggest enigma in the race. When I was at the Tour last year, I spoke to a Basque fan who has followed Mayo's career for years. His estimation of the Great Orange Hope? He pointed to his temple and said sympathetically, "He's weak, in the head." What this fan meant, he later explained, is that Mayo isn't good at overcoming adversity. If he has a disaster like on the cobbles last year, he loses morale and gives up regardless of how good his legs are. But if Mayo comes in with good form and avoids mishaps, he's capable of riding like an animal and winning stages as he did in 2003. So far this year, Mayo has played it close to the vest: he didn't charge up the hills with abandon like in last year's Dauphiné, instead saving everything up for the Tour. This means that Mayo could be sitting on great form. But how is his morale? We won't know for sure until the mountains, but I'm thinking he'll take a stage once we get there. That still won't be enough to overcome the huge chunks of time he's going to lose in the time trials, though.
- Cadel "Hellraiser" Evans (Davitamon Lotto). Evans came very close to winning the Giro a few years back, but that was before he jumped onto the T-Mobile cursemobile. Since then, it has been injuries and obscurity for the talented Aussie. Evans time trials well, and he can climb and descend with the best of them. I'm betting that he becomes a player in this Tour, showing once and for all that his strong Giro ride in 2002 was no fluke.
- Michael "Mister" Rogers (Quick Step). The young Aussie is coming into his prime, as his strong ride to 2nd in the recent Tour de Suisse demonstrates. This year he will benefit greatly from Richard Virenque's retirement: now that doesn't have to nurse Virenque up the climbs of France, Rogers will be free to ride for himself and hang with the leaders. He may have burned too many matches in Switzerland, but with his time trialing and climbing skills, I'm picking him for a good finish in the top ten. That will give him the experience and confidence he needs to make his next big step up to the podium of a grand tour in a year or two.
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION: OTHER MEN TO WATCH
- Chris "Hardman" Horner (Saunier Duval-Prodir). I think Horner is the team leader, and the team just doesn't know it yet. The amazing American rode like a monster in the Tour de Suisse, and finished with a stage win and a 5th on GC despite an uncharacteristically bad time trial. His lack of Tour experience will be a disadvantage, but I'm thinking he'll take at least one stage and make the most of the leeway he's given by the big GC riders. Horner is a canny rider, and he could easily make it as high as the top five with some good time trials and some good luck. Here's hoping his team figures out just how good he is in time to give him the support he needs.
- "Mad" Bradlee McGee (FDJeux.com). First off, I'm picking McGee to be the man in the Yellow Jersey for the first few days of the race. Bradlee has been working on his climbing this year, but he didn't exactly impress on the climbs of the Tour de Suisse. Still, he showed in last year's Giro that he has the power, talent, and smarts to ride with the best for a very long time, even in the mountains. I'm thinking that the biggest mountains will be a bit too big for him, but the classy Aussie will fight all the way to Paris and might even scratch his way into the top five.
- Roberto "Spanish Fly" Heras (Liberty Seguros). I like Heras a lot, but there aren't nearly enough climbs in this Tour for the talented Spanish mountain pixie to be a real threat for the podium. He could win a stage or two, and with some good luck he could even make the top five, but so far he hasn't shown any form this season. I'm thinking that this year's course doesn't suit him, and that once he gets in a hole he'll start saving his bullets for the Vuelta.
- Vladimir "Shag" Karpets (Illes Balears). Karpets won the White Jersey last year, and since then he's continued to show that he can climb and time trial extremely well. If some of the men I've listed above him falter, I'm thinking that the consistent Karpets could climb his way into the top ten.
- Francisco "Neckbrace" Mancebo (Illes Balears). The climber with the crooked style has been consistent over the last few years with some top ten finishes. However, I don't think he'll be able to excel on the terrain in this Tour. He's a smart man and could pull off a surprise: I mean, guys like me just keep underestimating him year after year, and he keeps putting up good results. Maybe he'll show me I'm wrong once again.
- Denis Menchov (Rabobank). Menchov is another talented rider who will contend for the top ten. However, with Rabobank's orientation towards opportunistic riding and stage wins, Menchov will have to fend for himself in his race for a high GC placing. With so many strong teams focused on the GC this year, that could really hurt his chances.
- Alejandro Valverde (Illes Balears). Valverde is obviously a talented rider who could push into the top five if he comes into the race on form and focused on the GC. But I'm guessing he's going to focus more on the Vuelta, where he rode so incredibly well last year. That means that he may show some flashes of his greatness, but don't expect him to be rubbing shoulders with Lance and Jan when the whip comes down.
- Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile). Last year he was brilliant, riding to 2nd on GC in a breakthrough performance in the Tour. This year, he hasn't been able to shake that lead out of his shorts and find his good legs for the mountains. Sure, I think he'll be a huge help to big Jan and Vinokourov, but I don't think he'll be capable of a big GC finish again this year.