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Giro finale
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Tales from the peloton, June 8, 2009

The Tour de France ladder

By Daniel Benson and Susan Westemeyer

With less than four weeks to go until the Tour's Grand Départ in Monaco, it's shaping up to be one of the most spectacular races in recent memory. Not only has race director Christian Prudhomme pulled out all the stops with one of the most exiting routes in years, but there are no less than four previous winners scheduled to start.

In our latest of Tour ladder, our brave dozen have gone through a whole host of experiences; from Grand Tour success and career-defining wins, to crashes, court races and total losses of form. It has been one of the most breathtaking months cycling has seen.

Vive le Tour!


Denis Menchov (4)

Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
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Rabobank's Russian is this month's number one thanks to his sterling performance in the Giro d'Italia. The once-upon-a-time Banesto man rode in true Indurain fashion, first trouncing his rivals in the Cinque Terre time trial to take the race lead and then impressively defending his jersey in the mountains. In fact it looked like he was glued to Danilo Di Luca's rear wheel whenever the punchy Italian tried to make a break for it. The Russian then extended his lead in the final time trial despite a jaw-dropping crash in the last few kilometres. The million dollar question is whether he can hold his form for July? If so, the Russian could repeat a Giro-Tour double not seen since Marco Pantani's 1998 exploits.


Carlos Sastre (11)

Carlos Sastre (Cervélo TestTeam)
Photo ©: Susanne Goetze
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From almost dead-last in last month's ladder to second place this month, it's been a huge turnaround for the 2008 Tour champ. True, he missed out on the podium at the Giro, but he came darned close and left the race with two stage wins and three weeks of solid training.

Sastre's only blemish at the Giro was his performance on the stage to Blockhaus, where he lost over two minutes. However, he showed spirit on the stage to Vesuvius and grabbed his second win of the race with a daring attack. If he can figure out how to avoid another off-day in such a crucial situation, he has an excellent chance of repeating his 2008 Tour success.


Alberto Contador (1)

Alberto Contador (Astana)
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Until yesterday's second place in the time trial at the Dauphiné little had been seen or heard from Contador since his win in Pais Vasco, ending April 11. Whether he's finally gotten around to that beach holiday he missed out on last year or been busily training remains a mystery but by the end of the Dauphiné we'll know a lot more about his current form as he aims to win his second Tour title.

In fact, Contador's position as Astana's numero uno seems to have improved despite a lack of racing as both Levi Leipheimer and Lance Armstrong were off the pace in the Giro. The only cloud on the horizon could be the financial problems surrounding Astana and Bruyneel's desperate attempts to find a big-time backer. Rumours are swirling that Contador may even leave the team before the Tour, with Caisse d'Epargne rumoured to be his favoured destination if Valverde can't race.


Cadel Evans (5)

Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto)
Photo ©: Sirotti
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After riding the Ardennes and putting in some strong performances (fifth if La Flèche Wallone and 16th in Liège) the Silence-Lotto leader took himself off to Romandie, where he used the tough climbs to hone his Tour form and finished seventh overall in the process.

Things got even better after Evans took his second win of the season in yesterday's Dauphiné time trial, putting seven seconds into Contador and over 30 seconds to his other rivals. It was an impressive performance over a course not to dissimilar to this year's opening time trial at the Tour. After Gilbert's stage win in the Giro, it finally looks like Lotto's disastrous start to season is turning around, with Evans poised to lead a solid charge at the Tour.


Michael Rogers (10)

Michael Rogers (Team Columbia-Highroad)
Photo ©: Susanne Goetze
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Team Columbia's Australian flattered to deceive in last month's Giro. After winning the opening team time trial and finishing in the top ten in four of the first eight stages, the Australian was within touching distance of the leader's jersey. However, on the key stage 12 time trial he lost close to three minutes and was sorely put in his place on the tough mountain stages that followed. He rallied to finish a credible eighth overall.

Still, this was his first Grand Tour since crashing out of the 2007 Tour de France and missing much of last season with Epstein-Barr virus. A solid but not spectacular return to stage racing.


Andy Schleck (12)

Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
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The Cyclingnews diarist makes a huge jump in our ladder this month thanks to his win in Liege. Last time, we wrote: "we are still waiting for him to give us a reason to remember why we even picked him for this list." Well, along with writing a diary for Cyclingnews he's obviously been reading our Tour ladder and taken our advice onboard before claiming the biggest win of his career in Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It was a breakthrough win for the young rider, who has been on the cusp of a big win for some time.

Schleck then backed up his showing at the Classics with a strong performance in the recent Tour of Luxembourg, where he grabbed a stage win and helped his older brother towards the overall crown.


Levi Leipheimer (2)

Levi Leipheimer (Astana)
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The American decided to skip the Giro's typical build up race, the Tour of Romandie, and instead competed in a Pro-Am race in the US. How that compares to a week-long slog against your potential Giro rivals wasn't clear but after a week of racing and a strong time trial Leiphiemer looked like he was capable of carrying on his superb start to the season, in which he'd raced three, won three.

As he found out, however, having form in February and holding it for nearly four months isn't an easy task. At the Giro, despite sneaking his way up to third after the stage 12 time trial, a weak day in the mountains on Stage 16 dumped him off the podium and down to 6th.

Leipheimer has been going full force since the beginning of the season, and it has caught up with him. Will he have anything left for the Tour? He won't be captain there, so maybe he will have enough reserves to be a good helper.


Lance Armstrong (9)

Lance Armstrong (Astana)
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With just his video appearances with uncomfortable looking team mates at the Giro for us hacks to feed over, we're left scratching our heads when it comes to predicting his potential for the Tour. On the racing front, a solid twelfth at the Giro is commendable when considering Armstrong spent three years off the bike and broke his collarbone earlier this year. In fact he put riders like Cunego (see below) firmly in their place, especially after an apparent verbal spat in which he said he'd crush the Little Prince (see Julian Dean's blog if you don't believe us).

Outside distractions, including the birth of his son and the continued financial wrangling of Astana, will be factors in his preparations but the signs are he's getting stronger just when it matters most. Be afraid.


Damiano Cunego (3)

Damiano Cunego (Lampre-NGC)
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It seems like an age since Cunego stunned us all with his performance in the 2004 Giro. Back then, the young Saeco rider swept away well-established riders with a combination of youthful exuberance and devastating power.

Fast forward to the present and the Italian looks like a shadow of his former self - a mediocre stage racer rider who can't climb, recover or even claim to be the leader of his own Lampre team. Yes, he managed to cling to the top riders on a few mountain stages at the Giro, but when the best you can hope for is a stage from a breakaway it's time to revaluate your future goals.

The combination of his clean stance on doping and his poor stage racing form must leave the Italian in a void of emotional turmoil, but will he finally realise he just can't cut it when it comes to a Grand Tour GC? Luckily he's not down to ride the Tour, so he saves himself a repeat performance come July and of course, there is the consolation that he's still one of the finest one-day riders of his generation.


Fränk Schleck (6)

Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Photo ©: Florian & Susanne Schaaf
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It looked like it was all over for Fränk Schleck's Tour bid, when in the Amstel Gold Race he crashed and lost consciousness. But the Luxembourger proved to be hard-as-nails and came back in Liège-Bastogne-Liège, where he finished 23rd.

It was then back to home for some training with his younger brother and it seems to have paid off after he won his national tour last weekend. A sterner test in next week's Tour de Suisse will give a clearer indication of his true form.


Christian Vande Velde (8)

Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream)
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What do Garmin have to do to get a break and end their dreadful run of bad luck? First Millar and Farrar suffer season-threatening crashes and then the team miss out on their first objective of the season in the Giro team time trial. Then their great white hope, Christian Vande Velde, takes a tumble in an innocuous stage of the Giro. The results being one rib fracture, a severe contusion, sprain to his mid-back and a hairline fracture to his pelvis. Ouch!

So now the biggest question on everyone's lips is whether he'll be back before the Tour and if so what kind of shape will he be in with no Dauphiné or Suisse scheduled. It's no substitute for racing, but the one thing that should keep him going is the fact that at last year's Tour he was a contender and that he can compete with the just about anyone over three weeks. The mind might be willing but is the body?


Alejandro Valverde (7)

Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne)
Photo ©: Susanne Goetze
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If we were only to look at what's happening on the bike then we'd nudge the Caisse d'Epargne rider up the ladder after his win at the Volta a Catalunya. However, we also have to look at what's happening off the bike and in particular, in the courtroom, and this month has been another shocker for the Spaniard. In fact if anyone can tell us just how ethical it is for him to be racing whilst legal proceedings are going on, we'd love to know.

Banned from riding for two years in Italy - and with the Tour set to pass through the country - it looks as though Valverde will miss out a chance to race at all. To make matters worse, the UCI is said to be considering whether to extend the ban, while the Spaniard is busily petitioning CAS. Who knows how it will all turn out or when there will be a final answer?


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