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95th Tour de France - GT
France, July 5-27, 2008
Unknown predators could swoop in on Paris prize
By Gregor Brown
On the eve of another post-Lance Armstrong Tour de France, it is anyone's guess as to who will don the maillot jaune of best overall rider when the three-week race concludes in Paris. There are only a handful of contenders, but just how they will perform on the parcours with decreased time trial kilometres but more mythical mountain stages is unknown.
When organisers Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) announced the route of the 95th Tour de France, it was clear that a rider who could excel in the mountains and hold his own in the time trials would have a shot at the overall win. The riders' climbing legs will be put to the test with four mountaintop stage finishes – Super Besse (stage six), Hautacam (stage 10), Prato Nevoso (15) and L'Alpe d'Huez (17) – while their time trialing abilities will be put to use in only 82.5 kilometres over two stages (4 and 20).
Due to the problems in Team Astana 2007, Alberto Contador, the defending champion and winner of the Giro d'Italia will not be at the Grand Départ in Brest. The 25 year-old followed Johan Bruyneel from Team Discovery Channel to Astana over the winter, a team which carried with it some baggage in the eyes of the ASO. Last year, Alexander Vinokourov's positive doping test during Tour forced the team to withdraw; adding to the doping positives of Matthias Kessler and Andrey Kashechkin, the team completely reorganised its management, but that was not enough to get an invite to the biggest cycling race.
His absence narrows the list of favourites to just five men: Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo).
Australia's Evans – top ten in the last three years, including second in 2007 – is the hottest pick for the 2008 title. Last year, just 23 seconds separated him from a Tour victory. This year, his morale has surely been raised thanks to one of his best spring campaigns in years – with wins in Vuelta a Andalucía (stage), Paris-Nice (Mont Ventoux stage), Coppi e Bartali (overall and stage) – and the recent announcement that the Silence-Lotto team would be 100 percent behind him, leaving top sprinter Robbie McEwen to look after himself in the bunch gallops.
"I've always had the idea I want to prove to the team what I'm capable of, so I can win their faith and hopefully what I'm capable of is winning their belief in me," Cadel said in a recent interview with Cyclingnews. "They will work for me and work 110%. Two years ago I wasn't sure of myself, if I could win the Tour and now all the indications are there that I can, so..." Adding power to Evans' punch will be new recruit Yaroslav Popovych, former lieutenant of Armstrong.
Cunego has shown considerable growth as a rider since winning the 2004 Giro d'Italia, the type of results and maturity that is needed to win the world's biggest cycling race. The 26-year-old won the young rider classification in his only Tour de France appearances (2006) but failed to live up to his earlier promise until he won the Giro di Lombardia last fall.
"I want to have good results. I hear the journalists, and I want to win," he stated after his Lombardia win. Cunego proved he is on track in 2008 by winning a stage in País Vasco, Klasika Primavera and, above all, the Amstel Gold Race, all the while skipping his home Grand Tour to focus solely on the French race. Cunego will be saved somewhat by the minimal number of time trial kilometres, and will have an edge when the race heads to his native Italy on stage 15 to Prato Nevoso.
Valverde, known as the 'Green Bullet' in some circles, might just be blasting his way to the top of the Tour de France podium. The 28 year-old Spaniard from Murcia who glimmered throughout 2006 has that same spark this year, thanks to big wins like Liège-Bastogne-Liège and Dauphiné Libéré. The former was a welcome addition to Valverde's solid palmarès, but the latter, coming only three weeks before the Tour de France départ, indicates that his one-day racing legs have developed to handle stages races.
If Valverde, who DNF'ed on in 2005 and 2006 before going on to finish sixth last year, can stay in contention through the early mountain stages he could just be the 'Yellow Bullet' in the Alpine stages leading to Paris. Look for a certain 2006 Tour de France winner, Oscar Pereiro, to back up his team-mate.
Two consistent riders that could make the jump from a fourth or fifth place to first overall are Menchov and Sastre. CSC-Saxo's Sastre has finished no lower than 21st in the last seven Tour editions, however, the 33-year-old has really been flying below the results radar since the start of the year, with 20th in the Dauphiné Libéré as the highlight. Working in favour of CSC is its depth; it has the Schleck brothers – Fränk and Andy – to back up the Spaniard. Fränk showed well in the recent Tour de Suisse despite a wicked-looking crash and younger brother Andy, best young rider in the 2007 Giro d'Italia is team's GC joker.
Winner of the 2007 Vuelta a España and best young rider in the 2003 Tour de France, Denis Menchov is a class act to be watched. The 30 year-old Russian is the only one of the riders thus far mentioned who will start the Tour de France with a Grand Tour in his legs; his consistency through the Giro d'Italia netted him a fifth overall.
Outside favourites for the overall title include Italian Riccardo Riccò (Saunier Duval-Scott), Frenchman Christophe Moreau (Agritubel), Colombian Mauricio Soler (Barloworld), Spaniards Samuel Sánchez and Haimar Zubeldia (both Euskaltel-Euskadi), Luxemburger Kim Kirchen (Team Columbia), Czech and recent Tour de Suisse winner Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), and Belgian Stijn Devolder (Quick Step).
Sprinters will have a limited chance to shine in a Tour de France that kicks hard in the first week with sharp finishing climbs. The first bunch gallop might not arrive until stage three to Nantes, and a sprinter will have a hard time grabbing the leader's jersey as there are no time bonuses awarded in the 2008 Tour. Other sprint stages are likely to be Châteauroux (stage five), Toulouse (eight), Narbonne (12), Nîmes (13) and Paris (21).
Belgian Tom Boonen, winner of the green points jersey in 2007, was specifically asked not to return following an out of competition test for cocaine in late May. Following the controversial ASO decision, the team will rely on Steegmans for the sprints while protecting Devolder in his overall run.
Keep an eye open for men of speed such as Baden Cooke and Robert Hunter (both Barloworld), Robbie McEwen (Silence-Lotto), Thor Hushovd (Crédit Agricole), Stuart O'Grady (CSC-Saxo), Mark Cavendish and Gerald Ciolek (both Team Columbia), Filippo Pozzato (Liquigas), Oscar Freire (Rabobank), Gert Steegmans (Quick Step), Erik Zabel (Team Milram) and Magnus Backstedt (Garmin Chipotle - H30). Without Boonen or the Giro d'Italia maglia ciclamino Daniele Bennati in the mix, the fight for the maillot vert in this year's Tour will go to the sprinter who can best survive the climbs.
The maillot blanc à pois rouges usually goes to the man who is willing to risk it all in an escape on a mountains day or from a dominating GC rider. Colombia's Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) fell into the first camp last year thanks to his stage win to Briançon. Soler went on to keep the polka dot jersey all the way to Paris, and will be back again this year to give it another go.
Look for stage nine to Bagnères de Bigorre to provide the first glimpse of the overall contenders in this category when the race hits its first major mountain.
Expect other strong candidates to be Juan Manuel Gárate (Quick Step), Zubeldia, David De La Fuente (Saunier Duval-Scott), Johann Tschopp (Bouygues Telecom), Kanstantsin Siutsou (Team Columbia), Kreuziger, Trent Lowe (Garmin Chipotle - H30) and Soler's team-mate, Félix Rafael Cárdenas.
For more read Cyclingnews' coverage of the 2008 route launch.
For a thumbnail gallery of these images, click here
Images by Roberto Bettini/www.bettiniphoto.net