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Tales from the peloton, April 14, 2009

The Tour de France ladder

By Susan Westemeyer

Now that the biggest one-day Classic is out of the way, it's time to think about the season's grandest Grand Tour: the Tour de France. Our intrepid dozen has had another four weeks of preparation chalked off, and we're back to see how the group of contenders we devised in February have fared.

Just as we started to count Alberto Contador out after an uneven Paris-Nice, he came back flying in the Tour of the Basque Country. His teammate Levi Leipheimer is a close second after winning Castilla y Leon. The Astana team has clearly demonstrated its dominance, even if one Lance Armstrong hasn't shown himself yet.

Armstrong lost major ground on our ladder when he crashed out of Castilla y Leon before he could show any form. The biggest jump up the rankings came from Alejandro Valverde, who leapt from twelfth to seventh with two stage wins in the Castilla y Leon, but will he even be allowed to race in July? The biggest loser was Michael Rogers, who dropped from second to eleventh after a relatively anonymous performance in the Settimana Internazionale Coppi e Bartali. He put in a solid effort in the Basque Tour, but it wasn't quite what the rest of the contenders have been able to produce.

1

Alberto Contador (2)

Alberto Contador (Astana)
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His performance in Paris-Nice led us to wonder if his mask of invincibility had worn off. Then, he stormed away on the queen stage of the Vuelta al País Vasco, and then capped it off with an unbelievably dominating time trial performance to seal the overall victory.

Time trials used to be his weakness, but so far this season they've been a strength. He smashed the Paris-Nice opening time trial, and held on to the leader's jersey for two days. However, the three-time Grand Tour winner lost the jersey on the third stage when a group went clear and he found himself without any teammates to help bring it back.

The Spaniard showed his usual climbing brilliance when he came back on the stage six mountaintop finish to beat the pants off everyone else, but then he finished nearly three minutes down the next day. That inconsistency evaporated in Spain this month, and we expect by July, Contador will be ready to add a fourth Grand Tour to his name.

2

Levi Leipheimer (1)

Levi Leipheimer (Astana)
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What a guy! He breaks his sacrum in a crash at the Tour of California but rides on to take the win. The fracture forces him out of Paris-Nice, but he recovers to win the stage two time trial in Castilla y Leon and holds the lead all the way to the finish. That's two stage races already this season.

With Lance Armstrong a question mark for the Giro d'Italia after he broke his collarbone during stage one of the Castilla y Leon, and Alberto Contador skipping the Italian Tour in favour of the Tour de France, Leipheimer could well be catapulted into the role of Astana's team leader for the Giro.

Will he be able to hold on to this fantastic form until July? We don't know either, but if he can, we may see a repeat of the 2007 Tour de France. Perhaps this year, he and Contador will swap roles.

3

Damiano Cunego (7)

Damiano Cunego (Lampre-NGC)
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He may not finish this high come July, but the 2004 Giro winner has hit the ground running this month after a stint of training in Tenerife. He claimed two stages at the Coppi e Bartali as well as the overall, and went on to place sixth overall in the Basque Tour.

For him, the 10th place in the final time trial was a very good result. There are refreshing signs of life in the rider's Grand Tour potential.

This week he will be off to defend his title in the Amstel Gold, and this is could be a make-or-break season for Cunego. Can he regain the form of 2004 or will he fail to live up to expectations in the Grand Tours? The jury is still out.

4

Denis Menchov (6)

Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
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Rabobank's monosyllabic Russian is another rider who has risen along with the Spring temperatures. After having started the season in a modest fashion, he's begun to show the consistency that helped him to a top five finish at last year's Tour.

Not only did Menchov climb to the overall win at the Tour of Murcia, he then went on to Castilla y Leon, where he finished fifth.

Never one for flamboyancy, this diesel engine takes a few months to warm up and it is a promising sign that he's done this well so early. For this reason, he earns the number three spot for March.

5

Cadel Evans (8)

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto)
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Just as Evans was about to drop from the top ten, he goes and wins the final stage of Coppi e Bartali in a tight sprint finish. Evans finished second overall in the Italian race – behind Cunego - and also did well in various mountain stages in Paris-Nice.

He seems to be right on track for another fine performance in the Ardennes Classics, which last year presaged his strong performance in the Tour.

In País Vasco, Evans was climbing well - he even dared to go after Contador when the Spaniard attacked on stage three. Even though he was unsuccessful at reaching him, Evans stayed within eight seconds of the overall until the final stage. But, a lacklustre time trial dropped him off the podium and made us wonder whether or not he'll be on track for the Tour.

Also a question mark is the Silence-Lotto team. They have been less than spectacular this spring, and have been getting beaten down by the Belgian press. Evans saved Lotto's blushes by picking up the team's first win of the season, but he'll have a hard time in the Tour if he can't find any help from his 'mates.

6

Fränk Schleck (5)

Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank)
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Fränk Schleck: Saxo Bank had a rash of crashes and injuries in March, and Schleck the Elder was one of the victims. Seven stitches on his chin and a badly bruised wrist were enough to make him sit out a number of races, including the first round of Belgian races.

He bounced back to take three top three finishes in Paris-Nice to give himself second overall. Fränk did especially well in the mountain stages, which was a good sign. He was looking strong at the Basque Tour as well, but then dropped out in the fifth stage after getting sick.

He's clearly saving himself for something big in the Ardennes Classics, and if his continues to show the strength he did in March, we fully expect Schleck to be a major contender come July.

7

Alejandro Valverde (12)

Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne)
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The Caisse d'Epargne rider is clearly showing form, but the axe is hanging over him as the Italian Olympic Committee has recommended a two-year ban, claiming it has definitive evidence Valverde was one of the clients of Eufemiano Fuentes of Operación Puerto fame.

The CONI's final decision is still pending. He could be cleared, banned only in Italy, or should the UCI back the Italians, he could well drop off the ladder entirely with a suspension. But until that happens, the scrappy Spaniard cannot be counted out for July.

His March began relatively quietly on the bike with a solid finish in the Clasica Almeria, but the Spaniard re-found his race focus at Castilla y Leon, where he took the uphill mass sprint in stage three and another sprint victory on the final stage.

Luck wasn't on his side for the GP Miguel Indurain, where his team worked tirelessly only to have Valverde unable to hold on in the final 500m.

His team did not include him on the roster for the ProTour País Vasco, likely due to the open investigation, but Valverde returned for the Klasika Primavera, and this time he got it right. If he is allowed to race the Tour, he cannot be counted out for a strong performance.

8

Christian Vande Velde (9)

Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream)
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Garmin-Slipstream's great hope Christian Vande Velde moves up the ladder with a stellar stage win in Paris-Nice, but his rise on our list of contenders was slowed by a so-so overall finish in the French race and solid but not spectacular time trial in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon.

His ride to solo victory on stage four of Paris-Nice was counterbalanced by a somewhat lacklustre opening time trial where he lost 1:15 to Contador. He went on to lose many, many minutes and finish a third of an hour down on the winner.

In Castilla y Leon, Vande Velde worked for his teammate Dave Zabriskie, who took third overall, so we're still a bit unclear as to what kind of form the Illinois native has at the moment. He's the kind of rider who prefers to fly under the radar a bit, so there is still plenty of time for him to move up a few rungs on our ladder.

9

Lance Armstrong (4)

Lance Armstrong (Astana)
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Could the Texan have had a worse month? A collarbone smashed to pieces and a severely hampered training schedule for the next few weeks. Then the AFLD attacks him for allegedly misbehaving during a doping control. He's convinced they'll try to stop him from racing the Tour, but Tour director Christian Prudhomme thinks otherwise.

Down and out? Not Super-Lance! Just as he was back on the stationary bike only three days after surgery, we fully expect Armstrong to overcome the issue with the French anti-doping agency in time for the Tour.

He is set to race the Giro d'Italia, and just in case that little problem doesn't evaporate before May, the Italian tour organisers just so happened to alter the queen stage so that it no longer crosses onto French soil. Of course this had nothing to do with Lance - it was the snow. Honestly. We swear.

Will those precious weeks out of competition ruin Armstrong's shot at an eighth Tour title? He wasn't exactly impressive in Milano-Sanremo, but then again that race was never his forte. Still, he takes a trip down the ladder simply due to the uncertainty of how he will come out of this setback. But as a seven-time Tour winner, he cannot be completely counted out.

10

Michael Rogers (3)

Michael Rogers (Team Columbia-Highroad)
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The second Aussie on the ladder lost some ground after he disappeared from competition for several weeks. He took a long break after California, with Coppi e Bartali being his next race. He didn't set the world on fire though, finishing way down in 54th place.

Rogers returned for the Basque Tour, where he returned to some promising form. He placed seventh on the first stage, following an attack with all the favourites on a small climb just before the finish.

He then went on to do a respectable time trial, although a three-time world champion in the discipline should not lose a minute to a climber like Contador.

If he can stay healthy, keep the rubber to the road and slowly build his form, we expect good things out of Rogers come July. But for now, he is still an unknown quantity and drops to tenth.

11

Carlos Sastre (10)

Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam)
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Carlos Sastre: The Tour winner is riding a modest spring schedule, in fact it is so modest we had to do a long search to find it. He took a long racing break after California before finally coming back to action in Castilla y Leon, where his performance was, what else, modest.

Guess what? He rode the Vuelta al País Vasco and put in another quite modest performance. Most worrying was his final time trial, where he lost 2.11 to Contador. Time trials have always been his weakness, and we'd expect to see him at least try to test his mettle in the race against the clock.

Perhaps he is content to let teammates like Heinrich Haussler take the spotlight. Perhaps he needs a bit more time to settle in with his new team. Perhaps he doesn't need as many racing kilometres in his legs as some of the others do. But we really think it is getting to be time for a sign of life here.

12

Andy Schleck (11)

Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
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The younger brother is continuing to lay low, and sinks to the bottom of our list for being completely anonymous in March. After a low-key effort in California, he followed up with a decent ride in the difficult Monte Paschi Eroica (8th).

His Tirreno-Adriatico was even lower-key than California, and he didn't manage to finish. Nor did he finish Milano-Sanremo. Nor did he ride any of the subsequent races until the Criterium International, where he finished buried in the pack. Even in the Basque Tour his results were nothing special.

He continues to hang around the bottom of the ladder, as we are still waiting for him to give us a reason to remember why we even picked him for this list. While all the other favourites are showing glimmers of form, it seems like Andy's lights are out.

That's our second look at who-is-who this year. How will they do in their next races? Who will climb up the ladder of success or slide down into the pits? Heck, how should we know that? But we'll be back with another look soon.

Photography

For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here

Images by Florian & Susanne Schaaf/cyclingpictures.de

Images by AFP Photo

Images by Sirotti/www.sirotti.it

Images by Susanne Goetze / www.cyclinginside.com

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