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By John Wilcockson
Saturday dawned cool and cloudy in Cérilly, central France, where the podium of the 95th Tour de France is being decided in a 53km time trial. Favorite to come out on top is Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), who rode the course a few months ago. He says the hills on the zigzagging course are power climbs suited to a strong time trialist like himself rather than the more lightly built Carlos Sastre, the race leader, who starts the day with a 1:34 advantage on the Australian.
Afternoon thunderstorms may challenge the later starters, including all of the candidates for the Tour’s final top-10 positions, but the course itself is challenge enough. There are no categorized climbs on the route, but about a dozen short hills will force the riders to be constantly shifting gears. And steady west winds at 10 kph will make progress most difficult in the more open second half of the course.
The first of three timed sections is from the start to the village of Rond-Bernard after 18km. The first 9km are fast, mostly downhill with a favorable three-quarter tailwind, before a sharp left turn at the village of Couleuvre (9km). The second part of this section takes the riders into the wind and uphill for the first time before dropping into Rond-Bernard.
The middle section of the course, from Rond-Bernard to Charenton-du-Cher (36km) is the easiest regarding terrain, but the hardest from the perspective of the crosswinds; while the final 17km has the two steepest climbs — where the crowds are at their thickest — followed by a 4km downhill into the finish at St. Amand-Montrond, and a flat final kilometer with a tailwind.
Race leader Sastre (CSC-Saxo Bank) has not ridden the course, but he was planning to drive it Saturday morning, as was American hope Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Chipotle), who has an outside chance of making the Paris podium after a TT battle with the three riders ahead of him: Denis Menchov (Rabobank), Bernard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and Fränk Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank).
Besides Evans, Menchov and Vande Velde, the other favorites for the stage 20 victory include world TT champ Fabian Cancellara (CSC-Saxo Bank) and David Millar (Garin-Chipotle), who start within two minutes of each other in the middle part of the 145-rider start list.
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At the start of the Tour, there were 11 riders I predicted would finish in the top places in Paris. Three of them (Riccardo Riccò for doping, Stijn Devolder for fatigue and Damiano Cunego after a crash Thursday) have now dropped out. This leaves eight of my favorites. These are their relative positions (along with the two men who have unexpectedly emerged, Kohl and Vande Velde) with two days of racing left:
OUR PRE-RACE FAVORITES (after 19 stages)
1. Carlos Sastre (ESP), CSC at 82:54min36sec
2. Frank Schleck (LUX), CSC at at1:24
(3. Bernhard Kohl (AUT), Gerolsteiner at 1:33)
4. Cadel Evans (AUS), Silence-Lotto at 1:34
5. Denis Menchov (RUS), Rabobank at 2:39
(6. Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Chipotle at 4:41)
7. Alejandro Valverde (ESP), Caisse d’Epargne at 5:35
8. Samuel Sanchez (ESP), Euskaltel-Euskadi at 5:52
11. Kim Kirchen (LUX), Team Columbia at 8:35
12. Andy Schleck (LUX), CSC at 10:04