|Tour de France General Classification (GC) Predictions
I've had an epiphany. I was working recently under my Clark Kentish secret identity as a university professor. I'd had a long day of book editing, and decided to take a break and scan the latest cycling stories on the internet. What I saw was not surprising: in the media feeding frenzy leading up to Le Tour, there was the standard litany of drug scandals, wild accusations, and angry denials. Of course, most of this stuff was being churned up by the French media and repeated by cycling illiterate (and veracity-impaired) members of the mainstream U.S. news establishment. As I was sorting through the rubbish, it hit me: the pinnacle of cycling is not winning the Yellow Jersey in the Tour de France. Oh no. The way a rider really knows he's made it in the sport of cycling, the way he knows he's hit the top, is when the French news media tries to use him as a spittoon.
Well I, for one, have had enough of the low end muckraking. I'll let the cops sort out the cheaters and let Dick Pound—you know, the crazy WADA chief with the porn star name—worry about who snorted what or smuggled dope up their bum for whoever-the-hell. I just want to dust off my laptop, put on my cycling super-tights, and size up the competition. Instead of spitting on the riders, I'll just satisfy myself with cursing them. (Sure, I've picked Armstrong to win a few times over the last few years, but so did my sixteen year-old cat. But remember when I picked Tyler Hamilton to win the Tour? CURSED.) So what pour souls have I picked to excel in the year's biggest race?
General Classification: My Picks for the Top Ten
1. Jan "U-Boat" Ullrich (T-Mobile). Oh yeah, the French media would love this. I mean, who do they hate more than Americans? That's right, the Germans. But Jan is big enough to handle the old stories about ecstasy and the endless stream of fat jokes. He's the only man in the professional peloton today to ever win the Tour de France (remember when he gave the field a 9' pasting back in 1997?). He rode the Giro d'Italia this year to get into shape, and rode strongly, but he didn't burn his matches. He came out and crushed the field in the time trial, rolled over the sane mountains, and then went home to hone his form. Then in the recent Tour of Switzerland he was steady and powerful, expending just enough energy to take the overall victory. The long mountain stages in this Tour will suit Ullrich much more than most people expect: he has a huge engine and does well on crazy long days with lots of monster climbs. His team is strong, and deep, and dedicated only to the "U-Boat's" chances for the overall victory. And he will take at least five minutes out of his biggest rivals in the two long individual time trials. Ullrich's biggest weakness has always been the first day in the mountains: if he can limit his losses on the first uphill finish, he'll be nearly unbeatable. Oh, and cold rainy days are like kryptonite for Jan. But with global warming what it is these days, I'm predicting that Ullrich will stay hot and sweaty and bulldoze his way to his 2nd Tour de France victory.
2. Ivan "The Terrible" Basso (CSC). At the beginning of the season, I picked Basso to do the Giro-Tour double for the first time since the legendary Marco Pantani pulled it off in 1998. I've changed my mind. Why? The biggest reason is that the Giro d'Italia was crazy hard this year, and Basso went all out in beating the field to a pulp. His grimace on every hard mountain attack told the story, as Ivan gave it everything to pull out the overall victory. I think he went too hard: those climbs were mental, and I don't think he'll have enough left in the tank to be able to hold off Ullrich for three long weeks. People say that Basso rode a strong Tour last year after riding the Giro, but that was different. The Giro was much easier last year, and Basso's illness during the race meant that he didn't work nearly as hard as he did this year. Don't get me wrong: Basso is awesome, and if he can hold his "A" game for three solid weeks, he'll win the Tour. But I just don't think he'll have enough pop in his legs to get the time he needs in the mountains and limit his damage in the time trials.
3. "Pretty Boy" Floyd Landis (Phonak). If Jan and Ivan have a bad day, then the bad boy from San Diego just might be the man to shock the world and take the top step of the podium. He has been on fire this season: he won the Tour of California, Paris-Nice, and the Tour of Georgia. The only question has been, did he peak too early? He backed off in the Dauphiné Libéré earlier this month, serving as pack filler and just getting in the race miles. He should come to the Tour fresh and rested. He has improved his time trialing a great deal with his "Praying Landis" position, and his climbing is now top notch. The trick, of course, will be to hold solid form for three solid weeks. Floyd is in his prime, and I think this is the year he moves up to the podium. Just not the top step.
4. Levi "Button Fly" Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner). Odessa's husband had a very strong ride in the Dauphiné Libéré to take the overall victory. Levi is a decent time trialist, a strong climber, and a smart cookie to boot. He doesn't have the overwhelming power of men like Basso and Ullrich, but his hallmark is consistency: he is always in the race when it counts, and he rarely loses large chunks of time. Like Ullrich, he usually gets stronger as the race gets longer. Last year, Leipheimer was screwed out of a position in the top five on GC by a miscommunication from the race organizers on the final day (and that blistering attack by Vinokourov, the man who took 5th place from him, didn't help either). That robbery has burned his butt all winter long, and this year Leipheimer will have a little extra fire to get him through the hard stages. Leipheimer is actually stronger this year, and without Armstrong and Vinokourov in the race, I think he'll be threatening for the podium when they ride into Paris.
5. Denis Menchov (Rabobank). Menchov backed into a victory in last year's Vuelta a España when Heras had his win stripped from him for failing a drug test. Menchov didn't get to enjoy the spotlight and revel in his victory, and that's a shame, because he rode brilliantly. This year he's coming to the Tour de France as his team leader, and he's looking both on form and dangerous. He struggled late in the Dauphiné Libéré and only got 6th on GC, but he won the big climbing stage up Mont Ventoux. He'll get clobbered in the time trials, but the hard mountain stages should see Menchov right in the middle of it. He won't win the race, but he could very well land on the podium if the mountains really go his way.
6. Francisco "Neckbrace" Mancebo (AG2r-Prevoyance). The consistent climber has moved to a French squad that will really be supporting him for a solid GC performance. Last year, "Neckbrace" managed to get 4th on GC behind only Armstrong, Ullrich, and Basso. If he is able to limit his losses in the time trials, Mancebo could easily end up on the podium in Paris. Unfortunately, I think those two long time trials will be Mancebo's undoing in this race.
7. Cadel "Hellraiser" Evans (Davitamon-Lotto). Evans comes into the race strong. The surest sign that Evans will be a threat in this Tour came from his performance in the final time trial at the Tour of Switzerland: he came in 2nd place, only 23" behind a storming Jan Ullrich. If he can find his good climbing legs before the Pyranees hit, Evans could be in the thick of the podium battle.
8. George "LL Cool G" Hincapie (Discovery Channel). The Big Hink is probably the biggest question mark coming into this Tour. He has been a monster for Armstrong over the past seven years, working his bum off to get Lance to the top of the podium. This year, however, he comes into the race with a free reign to ride for himself. He's shown some good form since crashing out of Paris-Roubaix, riding to 10th on GC in the Dauphiné Libéré, but George will likely be much stronger come July. Why? Because he's done it for the past seven years, and knows how to peak at the perfect time. His experience and strength will get him through the mountains, and his improved time trialing will help him take some time back from most of the climbers. I'm not sure George has it in him to make it up to the podium, but I'm really looking forward to watching him try. And don't be surprised if he wins a stage or two along the way.
9. Alejandro "Prince Valiant" Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne). Valverde is capable of finishing on the podium, but everybody I've put in the top ten is capable of that this year. That's why this will be such a cool race. But I agree with Miguel Indurain: Valverde is a talent, but he needs to learn to time trial much better if he wants to podium (or some day win) at the Tour de France. He will be a factor in the mountains, and might even win a stage, but I think he'll bonk one day in the mountains and get blasted in the time trials.
10. Iban "Miracle Whip" Mayo (Euskaltel-Euskadi). The leader of the mad Basque Orangemen is looking strong: he took one mountain victory in the Dauphiné Libéré, and came in 2nd on another mountain stage. That's where I think he'll make his mark in this Tour. If he's smart, Mayo will take advantage of the fact that he'll lose 10' to guys like Ullrich in the time trials. Those losses will give him a longer leash to attack in the mountains and take some stage wins (like he did in 2003). The time he'll gain doing this will move him up the GC, but probably not enough to threaten the podium. But it could be enough to get him into the top five.
Others to watch
Yaroslav "Jiffy Pop" Popovych (Discovery Channel). Ahh, life after Lance. There are several guys who could become the leader on the road for Discovery: Azevedo, Hincapie, Savoldelli, Popovych. I think that Azevedo will ride support and Savoldelli will be up and down after his shakey Giro. The young man from the Ukraine is the main guy who can step up if Hincapie falters. He's worn the Pink Jersey in the Giro d'Italia, is a strong climber and time trialist, and has lots support with his strong team. He's had a very quiet season so far, and he'll come to the race with fresh legs. I don't think he can make the podium, but he could just end up in the top five.
José "Mighty Mouse" Rujano (Quick Step). Another big question mark, this mighty little climber could threaten Michael Rasmussen for the King of the Mountains Jersey. If he is able to get away and get some stage wins, he might even be able to move up into the top ten on GC. But he won't care about the GC just yet: he'll just want to get some wins for his new sponsor and get a feel for the biggest race in the sport.
Christophe "Le Bug Taster" Moreau (AG2r-Prevoyance) 3rd in the overall at the Volta a Catalunya, and 2nd in the Dauphiné Libéré, Moreau could really pull off a big surprise in this Tour. He's not strong enough to threaten men like Ullrich and Basso, but if Mancebo falters, look for Moreau to take up the AG2r banner and carry it into the top ten. In fact, Moreau will probably be the best Frenchman in the race, a very big deal for his French sponsors and the French public. He might even make a run at the King of the Mountains competition while chasing after some stage wins.
Gilberto "G-Man" Simoni (Saunier Duval-Prodir). He won't be coming to this race to win it, he'll just be in town for some stage wins. Of course, I'd really love to see Simoni chase the Mountains Jersey: he is the kind of attacking rider and superior climber who could really put the wood to the field in that competition if he made up his mind to do it. And of course his talent and experience always makes him a potential threat for the top ten.
Damiano "The Omen" Cunego (Lampre). He decided to ride the Tour at the last minute, which doesn't bode well for his GC chances. Look for Cunego to try to take a stage win in the bumpy finishes during the first week, and make another big effort or two in the Alps. But don't expect much else: like Simoni, Cunego is mainly in it for the stage wins.