Sunday, July 5, 2009

TOUR DE FRANCE: GREAT START

This year’s TdF offers high drama with the return of 7-time champ American Lance Armstrong


AND...THEY'RE OFF! Saturday proved to be a great start to what will surely be a dramatic Tour de France. American Lance Armstrong, returning after a four-year hiatus, set the pace in an individual time trial (ITT) through beautiful Monaco. American teammate Levi Leipheimer set the early mark to beat. And only the top contenders, riding last, met the challenge. As expected, Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara bested everyone. 2007 champion Alberto Contador finished strong, as did Cadel Evans of Australia, last year's 2nd-place finisher. The ITT did its work of separating contenders from supporters.


CAVENDISH WINS STAGE 2. Stage 2 on Sunday did nothing to shake up the standings, as it was a 187-kilometer flat stage and most riders finished in a group and received the same times. Stage 2 was won by Mark Cavendish of Great Britain. Cavendish out-sprinted the best in the world. He won three stages in last year’s Tour de France and has emerged as the sprinter to beat in this year’s event. He now wears the Maillot Vert, the green jersey, that designates the rider with the most sprint points.


TOUR DE FRANCE FOR THE REST OF US. As usual, I'm blogging reflections of each of 21 stages of the Tour at my site Tour de France for the Rest of Us (http://tdf-bikehkiker.blogspot.com). Bookmark it and visit daily for easy-to-digest summaries and comments throughout the next three weeks. I try to put things in lay terms and share interesting stories along the way.



TOP TEN. Here's the top ten after Stage 2:

1 Fabian Cancellara (Switzerland) Team Saxo Bank

2 Alberto Contador (Spain) Astana – 18 seconds

3 Bradley Wiggins (Great Britain) Garmin-Slipstream -19

4 Andreas Kloden (Germany) Astana -22

5 Cadel Evans (Australia) Silence-Lotto -23

6 Levi Leipheimer (USA) Astana -30

7 Roman Kreuziger (Czech Republic) Liquigas -32

8 Tony Martin (Germany) Team Columbia-HTC -33

9 Vincenzo Nibali (Italy) Liquigas -37

10 Lance Armstrong (USA) Astana -40


LANCE WATCH. Everyone wants to know about Lance Armstrong. What are his chances of winning his eighth Tour de France? I think Lance will finish in the top five of the Tdf when it finishes in Paris in three weeks. He rode conservatively during Saturday’s Stage 1 and still finished in the top ten. He’s a 37-year old racing a peloton (the field of cyclists) with an average age under 30. If the old dude gets angry--and it won't take too much to make him angry--he can win it. Every agitation, every put-down, every allegation in the French press, every doubt builds the chip on his shoulder. And he has shown how effectively he can transfer his anger into “road rage,” that is, explosive climbing and time trialing. I imagine Armstrong will follow his usual strategy of keeping a low profile through the flat and mild mountain stages, but will make his moves during the difficult mountain stages and remaining time trials.

HOW IT WILL DEVELOP. Don't look for much of real race significance to happen in the first week, except for sprinters to duke it out on fantastic finishes. Don't expect much separation among the contenders in the second week, which includes climbs through the Pyrenees mountains. The third week...will be wild. The French Alps will tell all. And the next to the last stage (the day before Paris) is the climb to Mount Ventoux. This is the queen stage of this year's route. Hearts will break. Legs will fail. Men will cry (one competitor has died on Mount Ventoux). Heroes will be made. This is what makes the TdF the legend that it is.

ASTANA: GREAT...OR FRAGILE? Team Astana, the Khazakstan-based team originally put together for native son and now-banned doper Alexander Vinokourov, is loaded. Four riders of Astana were placed in the top 10 after Stage 1. Leipheimer, Armstrong, Contador, and Andreas Kloden each could be leaders on any other team. Each can time trial, each can climb, each is a proven winner. But can they work together? Will they? During the Team Time Trial (TTT) on Tuesday they will work together, and they could occupy the top four places of Tour leadership. After that, who knows? A few years ago, Ullrich, Kloden and Vinokourov (each capable of winning) were stacked on the same team and they blew up in division in the mountains. There is not good chemistry between Contador and Armstrong. Armstrong's loyalties lie with Armstrong. I'll be very surprised if we see him work for Alberto in the Alps. Watch that rivalry. And stay tuned for a classic event.


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