Oh YEAH! The time of year that I drive Jeannie CRAZY as she must somehow endure listening to Phil and Paul EVERY SINGLE DAY! Oh, the AGONY you are thinking to yourselves. Nay nay bunny rabbit I say. I have been in P&P withdrawal all year long! Just this week I FINALLY got a quick fix....the Pre-Tour show. And speaking of that show, just who is the primary voice/announcer this year? It surely didn't sound like Hummer...has he been replaced? WHO will be on the prime-time slot with Bobke?
OK, OK....I know some of you out there are less than enthused by some of the uhm, er....contestants this year, but I personally think it might very well be one of the most exciting tours in ages (of course, I say that EVERY year).
First off, we must acknowledge the reigning champion: Alberto Contador. Pretty much the most dominating and powerful climber on the planet. He just proved that AGAIN in the most ridiculous (as in STUPID HARD) Giro's ever. And he flat out CRUSHED all comers. He was so far ahead that they would have been within their rights to give him first AND second place on the final podium.
Sure, sure, there is some dilemma right now as to whether or not he should even be allowed to race. I can make arguments for both sides on that one quite honestly. IF he was a resident of pretty much any other country than Spain he would most likely be sitting out for the next 2 years. But he IS a resident of Spain, and his national federation has cleared him to race like it or not. He is doing nothing wrong at this point.
However, I offer this: he is 'accused' of doping with Clenbuterol...which showed up suddenly on the rest day in his sample. Successive samples showed it metabolizing out of his system in the expected amounts, proving that he indeed got it on that day. HOW he got it is the issue. By the draconian letter of the UCI law, ANY amount whatsoever is a failed test and you are guilty no matter what. But in recent years athletes have been challenging that ridicilous rule and are beating it. Also the UCI's own rules have many loopholes and contradicting rules in them, allowing for such. It all depends on which rule is being enforced when they either hammer you or let you off. The big question is DID HE CHEAT? The amount detected was SO VERY SMALL that everybody agrees would have done him no good whatsoever. The only forseeable way that that tiny amount got into his system for any benefit would appear to be if he transfused his own blood taken when he had been using larger amounts. IF this is the case then he obviously cheated and should be taking a 2 year break. HOWEVER, if he did not cheat, then the miniscule amount could very well have come from food, as other athletes across the globe are proving is possible. And if he got it in food, then he gets a pass. You CAN NOT hold athletes accountable for eating food. So he either transfused or got contaminated food. IF it can't be proven that he transfused, then he MUST be given a free pass on this one. That is my two cents on it. And yes, there are many many athletes in the past that have NOT been given the benefit of the doubt, but maybe it's time we set a precedent here that others in similar situations will be able to cite. Innocent until proven guilty. It's time WADA and the UCI play by that rule, which they have not in the past. Enough on that...he is racing, and for the moment it's totally fair. Move on.
The Protagonist: Andy Schleck. If they both show up in exactly the same shape as last year, then I would give the nod to Andy. HAD Frank not been injured and dropped out after his crash in the cobbles last year, then chain-drop or not I think Andy would have won. Alberto might be climbing on par with Andy, and TT'ing a bit better, (ok, quite a bit better) but having Frank to tag-team Alberto would have made a world of difference. Even without Frank, they were quite honestly dead even, the only difference being the infamous chain-drop. And we will never know how much time Andy might have gotten over Alberto if his chain hadn't dropped, because he had just dropped him and was going to sprint over the summit. I'm convinced that in some parallel universe there is an Andy who won that tour. Alberto was VERY LUCKY last year.
However, what remains to be seen is what condition Andy is actually in. Has he been sandbagging these last few months? I think so. But it's hard to tell for sure. I would have thought he would have come out and shown his TRUE form in recent races, just to let the world know he's ready to win. But maybe this is his way to leave all the pressure to Alberto. I think he is holding his cards VERY close to his chest and won't show them until he needs to. I hope this is the case anyway. Frank will be there, and Fabian, and Jens...so they have the firepower available. I look forward to seeing Fabian and Jens on the front setting a ludicrous tempo, fracturing the already devastated peleton and shaking out all but the very few contenders. FOUR mountaintop finishes this year....FOUR! Holy schmoley that will be AWESOME! On each and every one of those, every wanna-be contender had best be on his "A" game and holding station at the very front. Any moves by any of them must be matched...and very quickly it will come down to just those special few as all the domestiques will have been dropped off, only hoping the can survive inside the time-cutoff.
IF Andy is indeed hiding his true form, then I would suspect they will be on the top two spots of the podium. As much as I would like some of the other contenders to be able to hang, I don't think they can. A lot will depend on how much Alberto's dominance in Italy took out of him...will he be rested enough? He raced the Giro because he was expecting the CAS to announce their decision prior to the Tour, and he was hedging his bet that he might not race the Tour this year. By the postponement of their decision (however LAME they are to do that)...how freaking much time do they NEED after all?) I believe they surprised him. But now he has a chance to make history by winning the Giro and the Tour in the same year, which hasn't been done in a while. And I also add this on Alberto: IF he is racing clean this year, then I have to ask "why would he cheat last year"? IF he is indeed this good, then it would appear everybody else is playing catchup to that one in a million athletes who just are that good. He obviously has had the bejeebers tested out of him this year, and after his Giro performance, well, if THAT was fair and square, then GO Alberto!
OK...who else? Obviously I"m biased towards Chris Horner. I think if he were given total team commitments he is quite capable of making top 5. But he won't have that, at least not right away...Radio Shack is going in with FOUR co-captains. That is a lot. A lot of pressure too, knowing that how you do every single day will determine if you get your shot or not. Horner has shown grace under pressure though and he seems to thrive on it. I expect a great showing from him. Father time is calling him, but like Jens, he seems capable of beating time. I really look forward to him uncorking an amazing tour. Top ten for sure. Top five? I sure hope so (he is one of my top 3 fav riders, so I'm QUITE biased I admit).
Levi. In the Tour of California, Chris was better. But Levi just showed some of HIS cards in the Tour de Suissie...that come from behind TT he did on the final day was pure magic. The stuff of legends. Side by side with Chris, Levi will beat him in the TT's...but this year there is only ONE individual TT, which will favor both Andy and Chris over Alberto and Levi. So for Levi it all comes down to just how good are his climbing legs? I like Levi a LOT, but he has never shown he is capable of keeping up with Alberto and Andy. But he will have his chance. I would expect Radio Shack to really hammer away at the front on the big climbing days. With their 4 'contenders', they should really be able to play a lot of cards.
CVV. Two years ago he showed real glimpses of greatness, but has had some pretty bad luck since. IF he can stay healthy I'd love to see just what he can do up front with the big guns.
Tejay Van Garderen...I'd say he is the young dark horse here. He might be where Alberto was a few years back, when he was still somewhat of a 'nobody' yet all of a sudden there he was holding a VERY high GC placing. But he lacks the big Grand Tour experience, and I think that is vital here. The TDF is so much more than just a bike race. It is the grandest show of the sport on the planet. The pressure is immeasurable. It will be interesing to see how he does. I'd say he will certainly be top ten overall.
Cadel Evans. He is always a mystery to me. He has had moments of greatness, but somehow seems to be his own worst enemy. He has been plagued by injury in recent years and I'm not sure just when exactly he has been at 100% for a tour. I think he is surely a top contender if healthy, but he might be getting nipped by father time. I look forward to him showing me he is as tough as I think he can be.
Ivan Basso. He also seems to just underwhelm me more often than not. I know he is a fabulous climber, and has won the Giro a few times so knows what it takes to win a Grand Tour. But every time I get to rooting for him he just seems to fall away into nowhere. I would like to see him have a great Tour and be in the top ten.
Tom Danielson. He has waited LONG for his chance to go to le Tour. But he has a few teammates that will be taking the limelight from him, so his really has his work cut out for him.
Ryder Hesjedal. I have liked him for a long time. He used to be a world-class mt biker and I knew his name there (so did Cadel Evans by the way). I like to see Mt bikers coming over to the road. I think they develop bike handling skills that are superior to pure road riders, and it seems easier to go from dirt to road than from road to dirt. Totally different skill set. Ryder has shown he has potential for greatness....so I look for him to step up and be top ten also.
Sammy Sanchez. He is always a tough smart rider and I would expect he will be hunting for a top ten finish. Can he step up his game and make top five? That is the big question. I will be watching him for sure.
Phillipe Gilbert, Robert Gesink, Andreas Kloden, Bradley Wiggens, Sylvian Chavanel...all names we will be seeing I suspect. I think any one of them are capable of stepping up and delivering a top ten performance.
Oh..and GEORGE! Gosh, I almost forgot BIG GEORGE! My FAV! He is SO the MAN! Of course, like Horner, he is getting up there in age. And I'd be kidding if at this point in time I thought he could do real well overall (as in top 5).....a few years back (after Lance retired) I was really rooting for him to do just that. But he just seems to be the kind of guy who is there to help others. He's GREAT at it, and I long for him to win one more Tour stage. I still smile HUGE when I think of that shot of him crossing the line on the queen stage, and putting his arms up and then almost crying..as he had never before seen the clock at 0:00:00 before, realizing the magnitude of what he did that day. It is one of my top tour moments. Could he go top ten? I think he might very well have it in him. I'd LOVE to see it. Come on GEORGE!!!
So there, I've picked about 60 guys who I think can go top ten. OK, not quite 60, but a lot. I am pleased that they have a Team Time Trial this year....it's always a favorite day of mine. For some reason I just LOVE to watch the teams as they blaze along, and the teams that finish together are the most impressive. It brings me back to the BLUE TRAIN days...when SIR LANCE ruled the peleton with an iron fist, and his Tour TT squad was just the most impressive thing you'll ever see in a Team TT. And then I'm sure everybody remembers the year that Dave Zabriskie crashed out wearing yellow, and was left to his own...that one always makes me wince. I loved seeing DZ in yellow...much like when I see Fabian in Yellow, yet still out FRONT setting tempo for Andy, knowing the Yellow is soon to be gone. He's just such a classy rider. Oh, and speaking of the Z man, boy is Garmin loaded this year or WHAT! They surely need to win a few stages this time around...they are due and they have the firepower. I'd love to see Tyler nip Cav in a bunch sprint. I think this year we will see that. In fact, yes, I am indeed predicting that. Tyler wins his first TDF stage, beating out Cav. Yes, I see it in my crystal ball.
And so...my overall GC predictions. I just don't see anybody stopping Andy and Alberto, except for fate. If either of them has bad luck it could all come crashing down quickly. If they ride smart and have good luck, I see them one/two on the final podium. I just hope this year it's Andy in yellow in Paris. Who will be number three though? THAT is the 64 $ question. And like it or not, I'm afraid the race for 3rd will be just as interesting (or more so?) than the race for 1st. There are a LOT of guys who can take that third spot. And I honestly can't seem to come up with anybody who I see having better chances than many of the other guys. Levi? Chris? Ivan? Tejay? CVV? Cadel? Ryder? Bradley? Sylvian? I think all the guys I talked about could very well unleash a top tour and take that third spot. But just who steps up is the question. And it's not entirely inconceivable that Andy and Alberto will not be quite so dominating as I think...and if that is the case then the top 5 could really be a gunfight to the bitter end. I would very much prefer that sort of Tour. I harbor no ill will towards Alberto, and just want to see another amazing Tour. A GRAND Tour.