Okay, nine days in and a lot of things are still undecided. Tomorrow's uphill finish will be the first real sorting out, where the hammer will go down and nobody will be able to hide and the huge gaps will open up. On the eve of this big showdown, however, there are a number of minor indications as to who is going well and who isn't. Therefore, I'm taking this opportunity to further embarrass myself by looking into my magic 8-ball and trying to predict the unpredictable. Here are my rest day revisions to my pre-race picks for the GC top ten.
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION: THE TOP TEN
- Lance "El Jefe" Armstrong (Discovery Channel). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 1st. Current position: 3rd at 2' 18". The big question: Was that "bad day" on Stage 8 an indication of a weakness in the team and in Lance? My answer: Heck no. Of course the Discovery Channel team had a bad day on Stage 8, but I'm convinced that it was more of a lack of attentiveness than a case of bad legs. And on that "bad day" Armstrong was easily able to match the attacks of his rivals all by himself. Armstrong kicked the tar out of all of his big GC rivals on the first day in that time trial, and I think he's going to do the same thing in the upcoming mountains. His team is packed with climbers and Lance himself is clearly on form. Don't be against him, folks: you'll just be throwing away your money.
- Alexandre "The Great" Vinokourov (T-Mobile). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 5th. Current position: 5th at 3' 20". The big question: Can he keep attacking and put pressure on Armstrong? My answer: You betcha. Ever since this race began, Vinokourov has looked like the strongest man on T-Mobile. In that opening time trial, he was a convincing 3rd at 53" which was 15" better than Ullrich. On a couple of occasions in this race, he has shown his power and his willingness to fly off the front. Two years ago, that got him onto the 3rd spot of the podium in France. His victory at the top of Mont Ventoux in the Dauphiné Libéré last month shows that he has his climbing legs. While the T-Mobile plan seems to be to use Vinokourov to soften up Armstrong for Ullrich, I doubt it's going to turn out that way. I see Vinokourov going toe-to-toe with Armstrong in the mountains but coming up short, while Ullrich motors on behind trying to catch up.
- Levi "Button Fly" Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 3rd. Current position: 16th at 4' 49". The big question: Can Levi maintain the high level of racing that he achieved earlier this season? My answer: Yep. His opening time trial was pretty solid, and while his team faltered a bit in the team time trial, Levi himself has shown no signs of weakness. With his co-leader Totschnig riding relatively poorly, Levi is now the sole leader of the Gerolsteiner squad and will get all of their support. While I think Leipheimer might have trouble matching the fierce accelerations of Armstrong and Vinokourov, I think he's going to distinguish himself in the mountains. Leipheimer always comes good in the last week of a three-week race, and I think that Stage 15 is where he will really shine. That is the hardest stage of this Tour, a brutal 205.5 km kick in the groin through the Pyrenees that starts with a Cat 2 climb, proceeds to four consecutive Cat 1 climbs, and finishes up a nasty Above Category climb. He may not win that stage, but he'll put some big time into a lot of the men challenging him for the podium.
- "Pretty Boy" Floyd Landis (Phonak). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 6th. Current position: 12th at 4' 08". The big question: Can Floyd avoid having a bad day in the mountains? My answer: Most likely. Floyd has looked like a rock so far in this race. He was a solid 6th in the opening time trial, taking time on most of his rivals. Like Leipheimer, Floyd's team was off a bit in the team time trial, but Floyd himself has shown no weakness in the race. He has even gone on a couple of attacks, showing that he is not afraid to take some risks in this Tour. With Botero likely to take some of the heat off of him, Floyd will be able to sit on and make the most of the pace-setting by CSC, Discovery, and T-Mobile. In the end, I think Floyd will drive home a good final time trial and just miss the podium.
- Jan "U-Boat" Ullrich (T-Mobile). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 2nd. Current position: 12 at 1' 08". The big question: Will Ullrich's crashes affect his performance tomorrow? My answer: Yes. I thought Ullrich was the big scary guy Lance had to watch out for, and he still may turn out to be just that. But he's sustained two crashes—the day before the opening time trial and early in Stage 9—that may take some of the pop out of his legs. Even without the crashes he came into the race looking sluggish, and that opening time trial did nothing to dispel the feeling that the U-Boat isn't at his best. Like his namesake, the Ullrich of 1997 could surface at any moment and torpedo the peloton with some monster riding. However, I'm thinking that Ullrich will lose a lot of time on the first uphill finish like he always does. He will rally and ride strong in the last week, but he'll have to wait another year to win this race again.
- Michael "Bjergmester" Rasmussen (Rabobank) . Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: He wasn't even on my radar. Current position: 4th at 2' 43". The big question: Can he continue to ride this strongly in the mountains? My answer: Yes, but he will have one bad day. Last year the former mountain bike World Champ finished in 14th on GC. This year, he has already accomplished one big goal, which was to win a mountain stage of the Tour. He's well on his way to accomplishing his biggest goal, which is to win the Polka Dot Jersey. At this point, Rasmussen must now just mark the big GC riders and sprint up the last 500 meters of every big climb to claim the Polka Dot Jersey in Paris. This sort of defensive riding isn't really Rasmussen's style: he loves to attack, and attack, and attack. But if he can hold himself in check and bit, he could possibly take home a top five finish on GC to go with that mountains prize. He'll get crushed in that last time trial, but with that six-plus minutes he picked up yesterday, he's effectively neutralized that time loss.
- Roberto "Spanish Fly" Heras (Liberty Seguros). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: Out of the top ten, but a big threat. Current position: 21st at 5' 16". The big question: Did he bring his "A" game for this Tour? My answer: Surprisingly, yes. Originally I thought that Heras was coming into this race with questionable form, and that he was saving himself for the Vuelta. However, the mountain smurf has come through the first nine days of racing in great shape: he rode a decent opening time trial, his team rode a great TTT, and he has kept himself out of trouble and near the front. Sure, the loss of Igor Gonzalez de Galdeano will hurt him, but with a resurgent Beloki at his side he could climb himself right onto the final podium. It looks to me like Heras is sitting on some solid form, and I look for him to be right there in the mountains and perhaps even off the front for a stage win.
- Ivan "Bello" Basso (CSC). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 7th. Current position: 7th at 3' 44". The big question: Will Basso's ride in the Giro cost him in the final week of the Tour? My answer: Unclear, ask again later. Basso is still the biggest wild card in this race. If he's at his best, he could win the whole thing. However, his opening time trial was poor, and seemed to indicate that Basso's legs are a bit sluggish. With his talent, you can never discount him in the mountains. That being said, I think that monster Stage 15 will be his ultimate undoing. He may win a stage in the mountains, and may even climb high on the GC, but I doubt that he'll make it through Stage 15 anywhere close to the leaders. And that's too bad, because as I said before, Basso at his best would be a real challenge to Armstrong and everyone else in the race.
- Bobby "Just Say Go" Julich (CSC). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: I didn't give him a second thought. Current position: 6th at 3' 25". The big question: Can Julich continue to ride so strongly for the full three weeks? My answer: For the most part, yes. I didn't think Julich had another great Tour performance (like his 1998 ride to 3rd place) in his legs. This year, however, has been the best of Julich's career in many ways. Julich was an excellent 11th at 1' 07" in that opening time trial, and he's been strong ever since. He will have problems hanging in the highest of the mountains, and he may be put at the service of Basso if the classy Italian really gets going. But the way I see it, Julich will continue distinguishing himself and make this the best Tour ever for American cycling.
- Vladimir "Shag" Karpets (Illes Balears). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: Just out of the top ten. Current position: 13th at 4' 31". Karpets was 9th in the opening time trial at 1' 05", and he's raced himself into the White Jersey for the best young rider. Still, he has done all of this very quietly. While the big boys go at each other, Karpets will continue to ride consistently and strongly. He may even break through and be the revelation of this Tour like Basso last year. I think he's still a year away from threatening for the top five, but with a rider this strong and consistent it's hard to doubt him.
GENERAL CLASSIFICATION: OTHER MEN TO WATCH
- Santiago "The Battler" Botero (Phonak). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 4th. Current position: 15th at 4' 36". The big question: Can he ride consistently for the whole Tour? My answer: Unfortunately, no. I originally picked Botero to finish 4th with the thought that this would be his consistent Tour, but then he opened up with a terrible time trial where he came in 25th at 1' 30". He has gone on the attack a couple of times in this race, and I think that is where his strength will come: long hard attacks in the mountains on his good days. He has always had a horrible day in the Tour, and I think this year will be no exception. Still, he could finish high up in the GC if one of his big attacks sticks and his bad days aren't too bad. Oh, and if he can find his time trial legs in time for the final big show down at the end of the third week.
- Iban "Miracle Whip" Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 8th. Current position: 51st at 8' 06". The big question: Will Mayo ride well in the mountains? My answer: Probably, but it won't help his GC hopes much. I thought Mayo would struggle in the time trials, but I didn't think he do so incredibly poorly. He has shown nothing so far in this race, but we're just now getting to his turf: the big mountains. I think Mayo will launch on a couple of attacks, and he may even win a stage. However, I doubt that he'll be much of a factor in the GC race. For the sake of the Orange-clad Basque faithful, I really hope I'm wrong.
- Cadel "Hellraiser" Evans (Davitamon- Lotto). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 9th. Current position: 25th at 5' 47". The big question: has he finally returned to his best after two bad years? My answer: Yes. I'm a big believer in Evans, and I think that his poor time trial isn't an indication of how he'll ride in the mountains. Evans has kept himself in the ballpark, and will likely follow the big wheels as far as he can in the days to come. He might even get himself in a position to attack, though I don't think he'll win a stage. He could still ride himself into the top ten, but I fear that he'll miss it by a position or two unless he can pull off a great time trial at the end.
- Michael "Mister" Rogers (Quick Step). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: 10th. Current position: 37th at 6' 29". The big question: has he finally recovered from his big ride in the Tour de Suisse? My answer: Mostly. His opening time trial in the World Champion's Jersey was horrible, and it seemed to indicate that Rogers was still dragging after losing the Tour de Suisse on the last day. His efforts in that race had taken their toll, but he has done a good job of staying out of trouble and following the wheels in this first week. This has allowed him to regroup, and he showed no difficulty following the big guys on the climbs. I think he will continue to ride well throughout rest of this race, but will fall just shy of the top ten.
- Chris "Cracker Jack" Horner (Saunier Duval-Prodir). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: Top twenty, threat for top five. Current position: 43rd at 7' 12". The big question: Will his team finally recognize that he's their best guy? My answer: No, but it won't matter. Horner really lost a lot of time with an average opening time trial and his team's abominable TTT. However, Horner has been right near the front getting a couple of top 15 finishes in the last couple of stages, showing that his legs are good. While Horner's goal is a top ten on GC, I'm thinking his best bet is to put in some monster attacks to win a stage or two. Not only do I think he'll succeed with those attacks, but I also think he'll climb up high in the GC in the process. I'm thinking now that he'll probably end up in the top 15, but you never know. If he has a couple of attacks come good like in the Tour de Suisse, he could land in the top ten.
- "Mad" Bradley McGee (FDJeux.com). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: Just out of the top ten. Current position: 38th at 6' 30". The big question: Has his climbing improved to the next level? My answer: Yes. Okay, so my prediction that McGee would win the opening time trial was waaay off. He has clearly lost some pop in his time trialing by focusing on improving his climbing. His team's bad TTT has also put him way back on GC. But I think that Bradley will be a presence in the mountains to come, and that he could climb up into the top ten if he has a great day or two. He'll have to smoke that last time trial to pull it off, and at this point, I think that might be a bit too much to ask of the classy Aussie.
- "San" Andreas Klöden (T-Mobile). Where I picked him to finish in my race preview: Way out of the top ten. Current position: 11th at 4' 08". The big question: Has he returned to the form that got him 2nd last year? My answer: Nope, but he's still a darned good rider. Klöden had a resurgence on that Cat 2 climb on Stage 8, putting in an attack that almost won him the day. He looked smooth and effortless as he rode away from the peloton, but that was only a Cat 2 climb: the leaders were going up that thing in their big ring, meaning that it was an easy climb. Where Klöden has struggled this year has been in the big mountains, and while he may have some good days in the stages to come, I think he's going to fall away from the leaders after sacrificing himself for Ullrich and Vinokourov. He could pull off another surprise like last year, but at this point I doubt it.