The new dynamic of the 2008 Tour

With the Pyrénées in the rearview mirror, the riders in the 95th Tour de France can now look forward to three less nervous stages across the South of France, where the main obstacle to overcome will be the heat. Temperatures will be in the upper-80s by the end of Thursday’s stage 12 in Narbonne, and somewhat warmer the following two days.

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Assessing the chances of the 10 men who can still win the Tour

By John Wilcockson

Evans may be “indestructible,” but he’s still facing challenges on the road to Paris.

Photo: Graham Watson

With the Pyrénées in the rearview mirror, the riders in the 95th Tour de France can now look forward to three less nervous stages across the South of France, where the main obstacle to overcome will be the heat. Temperatures will be in the upper-80s by the end of Thursday’s stage 12 in Narbonne, and somewhat warmer the following two days. That won’t deter ambitious riders deep in the classification to shoot for stage wins — just as CSC-Saxo Bank’s Kurt-Asle Arvesen did on Wednesday at Foix — while those teams with green-jersey contenders will aim for one or two field sprints this week.

Already, on Wednesday, there was a truce among the eight teams that still have riders with a chance of finishing on the Paris podium, and there won’t be a renewal of hostilities until the first alpine stage on Sunday. The long “break” is proving most helpful to race leader Cadel Evans, who will have had a week to heal the wounds he suffered in his frightening crash last Sunday.

So let’s look at each of the remaining 10 candidates with 10 stages and 1663.5km still to race.
Editor’s Note: This article was written prior to the announcement of Riccardo Ricco’s positive doping test. He and the entire Saunier Duval team have since withdrawn from the Tour de France.

Cadel Evans (1st overall)

Age: 31
Team: Silence-Lotto (still has all 9 riders)
One team manager this week called Evans “indestructible.” Even when suffering from extensively bruised muscles and deep abrasions from his crash last Sunday, the Aussie was still solid on the climb to Hautacam the next day. When the Alps roll around next Sunday, he will have had a week to recover, and will be climbing much more strongly. Though he does have solid teammates for the transitional stages, including his highly experienced road lieutenant, Robbie McEwen, Evans has limited support for the remaining three mountain stages — but the same goes for Vande Velde, Kohl, Menchov, Kirchen and Efimkin. Of all these 10 riders, only Vande Velde is likely to match Evans in the final time trial on July 26.

Fränk Schleck (2nd, at 0:01)

Age: 28
Team: CSC-Saxo Bank (all 9 riders)
Represents a double threat with teammate Sastre, who remains CSC’s designated team leader. Schleck is more of a classics specialist than a rider of grand tours, and he has to confirm that he can repeat the climbing form he showed at Hautacam. To envision beating Evans he will likely have to gain at least three minutes on the Aussie before the closing 53km time trial; that’s highly unlikely, unless Evans has a really bad day or two. Schleck’s biggest advantage is in the collective strength of his team, which includes his brother Andy, world TT champ Fabian Cancellara, German strongman Jens Voigt and workhorse Vladimir Gustov

Christian Vande Velde (3rd, at 0:38)

Age: 32
Team: Garmin-Chipotle (8 riders, lost Magnus Bäckstedt)
Despite being in third place the seasoned American from the Tour’s newest team is the stealth candidate. Only one rival team manager has publicly voiced a positive opinion of Vande Velde’s chances. AG2R’s Vincent Lavenu said Tuesday, “It’s him among the unexpected candidates who has the greatest chance of getting on the podium, if he continues to be consistent in the mountains.” Should he do that, the Garmin rider could even win the Tour in the final time trial, a discipline in which he rivals Evans and Menchov.

Bernhard Kohl (4th, at 0:46)

Age: 26
Team: Gerolsteiner (all 9 riders)
After placing 31st in his debut Tour last year, this Austrian climber is having the spotlight shined upon him for the first time. His best result so far in his four-year pro career was third at the 2006 Dauphiné Libéré behind Levi Leipheimer and Christophe Moreau; this year, Kohl’s best result was sixth in the minor Tour of Bavaria. Now that he is on the radar, he will find it tough to gain any more time in the mountain stages, like he did at Hautacam.

Denis Menchov (5th, at 0:57)

Age: 30
Team: Rabobank (all 9 riders)
Most neutral observers say this uncharismatic Russian poses the greatest threat to Evans because of his long experience in the grand tours, his two wins at the Vuelta a España and his recent fifth place at the Giro d’Italia. Both a solid climber and time trialist, Menchov will need to show more spark to beat Evans. His big advantage is his Rabobank team, which can help him everywhere — except the very final parts of tough uphill finishes.

Carlos Sastre (6th, at 1:28)

Age: 33
Team: CSC-Saxo Bank (all 9 riders)
Like consistent performers of the past, this Spanish climber (his time trials are erratic) has rarely shown the aggressive trait that he’ll need to challenge for the podium. People call him “Mr. Fourth Place.” He could break that mold by double-teaming in the Alps with Schleck, after his incredibly strong team prepares the ground to isolate their opponents. But Sastre, like Schleck, will have to gain three or more minutes before the time trial on the Tour’s penultimate day if he wants to win the Tour.

Kim Kirchen (7th, at 1:56)

Age: 30
Team: Columbia (all 9 riders)
The steady Luxembourger has had a great opening half to the Tour, but he has already started to turn his attention to the green jersey, perhaps knowing that he won’t be able to challenge Evans, Menchov and Vande Velde in the Alps. By aiming at the lesser goal, Kirchen could move back up the rankings, but he remains a long shot for the podium.

Juan José Cobo (8th, at 2:10)

Age: 27
Team: Saunier Duval-Scott (7 riders, lost Angel Gomez and Aurélien Passeron)
Back home in his Cantabrian village in northern Spain, they call Cobo the Buffalo. Like that handsome animal, he can be both docile and aggressive, especially on the bike. His biggest “plus” is to have this race’s fastest two climbers, Riccò and Leonardo Piepoli as his teammates. Cobo is a better time trialist than those two Italians, but he has shown erratic form in the past — such as losing 26 minutes on the Plateau de Beille mountain stage before placing 20th at last year’s Tour. His best results this year were 15th places at the Tour of Asturias and Tour of Catalonia.

Riccardo Riccò (9th, at 2:29)

24.Team: Saunier Duval-Scott (7 riders, lost Angel Gomez and Aurélien Passeron)
This brilliant Italian climber says he will be happy with his second Tour if he wins the stage to L’Alpe d’Huez — like his idol, the late Marco Pantani, who did that twice. But Riccò is the only rider in the race who could potentially gain a fistful of minutes in the Alps to give him a cushion before the last time trial. He should finish on the podium, but the top step will be hard for him.

Vladimir Efimkin (10th, at 2:32)

Age: 26
Team: AG2R-La Mondiale (8 riders, lost John Gadret)
This elegant Russian rider has been slowly maturing since he won four races in his rookie season of 2005, including the Tour of Portugal. He won a mountain stage of last September’s Vuelta, finishing sixth overall. This year, he was an unimpressive 24th at the Dauphiné and 11th at the Tour of Catalonia. His gritty team will support him well, but Efimkin can’t expect to climb higher than fifth overall.

Other pre-race favorites now out of contention

? 13. S. Sanchez, at 4:26
? 14. A. Valverde, at 4:41
? 16. D. Cunego, at 5:37
? 22. A. Schleck, at 8:34
? 28. S. Devolder, at 13:36.

Thursday’s stage starts in the eastern Pyrénées, and will again see an early break, but strong westerly winds will make the flatter second half of the stage much tougher, while a high-speed finale with the wind should lead to a sprint finish. Thor Hushovd, Erik Zabel and Gert Steegmans are the favorites, but watch out for Robbie Hunter, Robbie McEwen and perhaps Mark Cavendish

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