Inside the Tour de France with John Wilcockson: Clarity after the cobblestones

Two-time second-place finisher Cadel Evans (BMC) is in the driver’s seat after Tour’s hectic opening.

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It may not have been Paris-Roubaix, but Tuesday’s stage 3 over the narrow and dusty cobblestoned farm roads of northern France provided far more drama than this year’s spring classic, because not only was the day’s victory in play but also the destiny of the 97th Tour de France. Cervélo TestTeam’s Thor Hushovd was the delighted winner of the 213km stage and its 12.5km of pavé, but the day’s biggest winner was Cadel Evans of BMC Racing.

After finishing with the small winning breakaway group at Arenberg, the reigning world champion is now in the driving seat of this year’s Tour. He has a half-minute lead over an impressive Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), a minute over an excellent Alberto Contador (Astana), and almost two minutes over Lance Armstrong (Team RadioShack) — whose untimely puncture cost him a vital minute. The time gaps might have been even wider had Evans’ teammate George Hincapie not flatted and deprived the Australian of his assistance on the last three sectors of cobblestones.

Immediately after the stage finished, Evans played down his advantage, saying, “About 20 seconds over Contador doesn’t mean much (in view of) the Pyrénées, but I did lose the (2007) Tour to him by 23 seconds. So we’ll see.”

But after four crash-filled days of racing that has eliminated 10 riders, while more than half the field is nursing wounds or broken bones, Evans is looking good. Assuming that there are no big changes in the relative positions between now and the first climbing stages this coming weekend, his grip on the favorites’ virtual GC is emphasized in the following analysis.

1. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing)

The Aussie was in a similar position two years ago in a Tour that did not include Contador and Armstrong, and he ended up losing the race to Carlos Sastre — but in 2008 Evans had minimal help from his then-Silence-Lotto teammates while Sastre had huge support from his then-CSC teammates Fabian Cancellara and the Schleck brothers. This year, Evans is much more confident, both in himself and his team.

His BMC teammates at the Tour are far more experienced and capable than those he had at this year’s Giro d’Italia. In particular, Hincapie knows how to support a Tour winner (he did it seven times with Armstrong); classics riders Alessandro Ballan, Marcus Burghardt and Karsten Kroon can help him on the flats; and climbers Steve Morabito and Mauro Santambrogio have the strength to protect Evans until the final parts of mountaintop finishes.

Evans’ biggest advantage though is that, with a healthy time advantage, he will be able to relax over the next several days and gather his strength before the expected attacks from his rivals in the mountains.
Previous best finishes: Evans was second overall in 2007 and 2008.

2. Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank), at 0:30

The young Luxembourg star is rightfully proud that, riding under the wing of his Paris-Roubaix-winning teammate Fabian Cancellara, he came in with the leaders Tuesday on a stage he was not looking forward to. But he suffered the severe loss of his older brother Fränk, who crashed heavily on the cobblestones and had to leave the Tour with a broken clavicle.

That’s a huge blow to his Tour hopes because the two brothers are inseparable. They have been roommates for years, enabling the more experienced Fränk to give his somewhat scattered younger brother greater focus. And not having him at his side in the mountain stages means that Andy will have to rely on his less accomplished Danish teammates Chris Anker Sørensen and Jakob Fuglsang — who is riding his first Tour.

Another factor is that the Saxo Bank team riders have the responsibility of riding at the front of the peloton in defense of Cancellara’s yellow jersey, even though the sprinters’ teams will share those duties in the expectation of stage wins over the next three days. Schleck’s veteran teammates Jens Voigt and Stuart O’Grady have already had to work exceptionally hard this week and their help may diminish by the third week; also, the penultimate day’s long time trial at Bordeaux could cost Schleck two or minutes to the likes of Evans, Contador or Armstrong
Previous best finish: Schleck was second last year.

3. Alexander Vinokourov (Astana), at 0:52

A controversial figure in the sport because of his two-year suspension after being caught blood doping at the 2007 Tour de France (which he has consistently denied), this veteran Kazakh has returned to the team he helped to create with three months of startling results — notably winning April’s Liège-Bastogne-Liège classic and wearing the leader’s pink jersey at the Giro d’Italia. In what may be his final Tour, Vinokourov says he will ride support for Spanish teammate Contador this month. But the 36-year-old remains a national hero in Kazakhstan and he’ll find it hard to control his personal ambitions on a team funded by his country. Even so, Vinokourov has always been an erratic performer in the high mountains, and that is likely to again be the case after a particularly grueling edition of the Giro.
Previous best finish: Vinokourov was third in 2003.

4. Alberto Contador (Astana), at 1:01

The out-and-out pre-Tour favorite, this hyper-active Spanish rider is attempting to win a third Tour de France; but for the first time he does not have the rock-solid team organization he had in his previous two victories. Even though he had a much-hyped personality clash with then teammate Armstrong last year, Contador did benefit from the impressive riding of Andreas Klöden, Levi Leipheimer, Sergio Paulinho and Yaroslav Popovych — who this year are all riding with Armstrong at Team RadioShack.

Along with Andy Schleck, Contador is the most explosive climber in the peloton, but he has weaker and less-experienced back-up riders for the mountain stages in Spaniards David De La Fuente, Jésus Hernandez and David Navarro. And, ultimately, constant help from Vinokourov is not guaranteed. Contador’s best bet is to play a waiting game and hope that rival teams lose key riders and/or burn out by the Pyrénées, where his climbing strength could prove to be the winning factor.
Previous best finishes: Contador won the Tour in 2007 and 2009.

5. Denis Menchov (Rabobank), at 1:10

This enigmatic Russian, who has won both the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España, has always under-performed at the Tour. At 32, Menchov may be too far along in his career to change course, especially as he is less strong at time trials than before. However, he did well on the cobblestones after telling Dutch teammates that his legs felt exceptionally strong Tuesday. After his best-ever preparations for the Tour, Menchov could cause a surprise, but he is better suited to winning mountain stages than challenging for the overall victory.
Previous best finish: Sixth in the 2006 Tour.

6. Brad Wiggins (Team Sky), at 1:10

Arriving at the Tour as a contender for the first time — his high finish last year was a huge surprise — this multiple world and Olympic track champion is still adapting to his new role of team leader. At the same time, his first-year British-based team is still finding its way in its debut Tour; and its unlikely that his young, largely inexperienced teammates will be able to provide the solid support he received last year from Team Garmin. But strong individual strength can overcome a team’s shortcomings, as Evans has shown in recent Tours.
Previous best finish: Fourth in 2009.

7. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas), at 1:45

Having come through the first four days of the race a minute ahead of his theoretical team boss, Ivan Basso, this ambitious young Czech says he came to this Tour to contend after serving his apprenticeship with 13th- and ninth-place finishes in his first two Tours. But Kreuziger has already been linked with other teams in 2010 and he will do best to curb his personal ambitions to help his Italian team leader on this leading Italian team.
Previous best finish: Ninth in 2009.

8. Lance Armstrong (RadioShack), at 1:51

No cyclist’s career has been as minutely examined and publicized at that of superstar Armstrong. Yet, despite the controversies surrounding his personality and ongoing allegations of drug-taking he remains at the epicenter of the Tour — for the fans and the media.

Can he win the Tour for an unprecedented eighth time? That’s a question that can only be answered in the upcoming mountain stages, but the Texan has a lot going for him despite losing that minute because of a flat tire at a critical point of Tuesday’s stage. His strongest card is his impressively powerful team of climbers: Klöden, Leipheimer, Paulinho, Popovych, Jani Brajkovic and Chris Horner can all be there for Armstrong in the toughest climbing stages, whereas the most any other contender can hope for is to have two teammates with them, not six.

On a personal level, Armstrong has more tactical knowledge and experience than any other contender, which combined with the confidence he has gained in this second year of his comeback, with top-three finishes at his last two races, the Tours of Switzerland and Luxembourg, gives him extra motivation. He showed in last Saturday’s prologue that his time trialing skills are returning, while it seems that he has timed his preparations for the Tour to perfection.

Tuesday’s puncture was an undoubted setback for Armstrong — he expected to gain time on Contador, Schleck and Evans, not lose it — but that will likely fire him up even more.
Previous best finishes: Seven-time winner (1999 to 2005), third in 2009.

9. Tony Martin (HTC-Columbia), at 1:51

This impressive young German rider was delayed by a crash on Tuesday’s stage but he remains a rider who can achieve a high placing. His main task is to support team leader Michael Rogers, who lost time because of an ill-timed puncture on the cobblestones, but Martin is more than a pure team rider. Almost on a par with Cancellara in time trials, he has showed improving form as a climber and he’ll be ready to step in should Rogers falter in the Alps.
Previous best finish: 36th in his only Tour last year.

10. Levi Leipheimer (RadioShack), at 2:14

Obviously, Leipheimer is in the Tour to ride for Armstrong, but as a podium finisher himself the highly experienced American can be ready to deputize at any point. Also, having raced alongside Contador as a teammate on all four of the Spaniard’s grand tour victories, he has the inside track on the defending champion’s weak points. Should the Tour’s outcome depend on the final time trial, Leipheimer is capable of being RadioShack’s man of the moment, not Armstrong.
Previous best finish: Third in 2007.

11. Jani Brajkovic (RadioShack), at 2:21

This talented Slovenian climber/time trialist displayed his maturing skills and strength to beat Contador at the recent Dauphiné stage race in the Alps. But this is Brajkovic’s debut Tour and he is here to race for Armstrong and begin to learn the intricacies and demands of the world’s most testing bike race.
Previous best finish: Riding his first Tour.

12. Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia), at 2:21

When he flatted on the cobblestones Tuesday, Rogers had to wait for about a minute to get a replacement wheel. Otherwise he would be up with Menchov and Wiggins in the overall picture. But the big Australian, a three-time world time trial champion, has prepared for this race better than ever before, coming off three seasons marred by accident, illness and injury. He now has the same coach as Evans and Basso, and his victory at the Tour of California in May has boosted his confidence to its highest level in his nine years of professional racing.
Previous best finish: Ninth in 2006.

13. Andreas Klöden (RadioShack), at 2:22

Another Armstrong acolyte, this veteran German has proven his super-domestique status over and over, but he’s also a rider who can stay in contention for overall victory should his team leader falter. His climbing strength will prove invaluable for Armstrong over the next couple of weeks.
Previous best finishes: Second in 2004 and 2006.

14. Carlos Sastre (Cervélo), at 2:40

The winner of the 2008 Tour, this veteran Spanish climber does not have the same team backing as he did then. In fact, Cervélo is primarily focused on helping Tuesday’s stage winner keep his grip on the green jersey, and Sastre will likely focus on winning a stage.
Previous best finish: Winner in 2007.

15. Ivan Basso (Liquigas), at 2:41

If the two-time Giro winner has the climbing form he showed in Italy in May, Basso will certainly climb up the overall standings; but after missing four editions of the Tour because of doping-related problems and a two-year suspension, he will find it tough to return to his previous podium-finishing level. But he and his powerful Liquigas formation may take advantage of tactics between the other top contenders to help him contend for the yellow jersey.
Previous best finish: Second in 2005.

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