Welcome, cycling newbies (and oldies) alike! Yes, the Tour de France starts this Saturday, and since the lame American press is only gonna yap about Lance Armstrong (and no hard feelings, if some bewilderment, if you like it that way), and there's so much more to this fabulous race than that, it's time to get crackin'. Having already force-fed both my faithful readers various "Tour de France 101" or "Cycling 101" type gigs in the past, I'll mercifully spare you all that this year, but for my money, there's a ton elsewise worth watching this Grand Boucle, and you ain't gonna hear it from Versus. Ergo, today’s must-have (well, not necessarily "must" have, but tough noogies for you you "do" have) installment: The Overall Contenders:
1. Alberto Contador (Astana). Lance’s teammate, one of only a few riders to have won all three Grand Tours (Italy, France and Spain), and the best Grand Tour racer in the world right now, hands down. Great climber with incredible out-of-nowhere acceleration uphill, improving enough in the time trial to have just won Spain’s national time trail championship (and I won't mention again why that makes me just itch), and a true GC contender needs to be able to time trial. The European bookies have him as the overwhelming favorite. Potential downfall: with Lance on the squad, the team’s loyalties are divided. If they let infighting get in the way, it could open the door to someone else, namely:
2. Denis Menchov (Rabobank). Has won two Vueltas (Spain’s grand tour) and won this year’s Giro. Doesn’t quite have Contador’s acceleration, but can take an amazing amount of pain and is a good tactician—he will match any attack, and is not afraid to attack himself if he has to. Rabobank’s team is not quite as strong on paper as Astana, but it’s still one of the best and they are 100% behind Menchov.
3. Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto). Always a bridesmaid, never a bride. Second in last year’s Tour. Solid, hardworking, has never attacked at all until this year, usually just gloms onto someone’s wheel like leech on skin. He could do it with a stronger team, but won’t because Silence is generally too weak to help him—you’ll notice in the high mountains he is almost always left alone.
4. Carlos Sastre (Cervelo): defending Tour de France champion. Great climber, pretty sucky time trialist (as pure climbers tend to be) but a very strong team. Lance, who is a jerk, gave an interview to an Australian newspaper saying last year’s Tour was a “joke,” but then again, Lance is a jerk.
5. Big Bro (Frank) and Baby Bro (Andy) Schleck (Saxo Bank). Will probably take a couple of stages, but if Frank, who never doped so you can all just bite me, thinks his gangly little sib can get the podium, he will work like a mad dog to chew up and spit out the field for him.
6. Ugh, Lance (Astana). Johan Bruyneel, his boss who guided him to his 7 Tour wins, left off one of his key domestiques Chris Horner this year, which hurts him somewhat, but then, he did the same to Contador. Probably in better form than he’s letting on—an old trick from his younger days. Says he’s in it to win it. Again, the question is whether Lance will decide to wreck the team rather’n let Contador take it over him.
7. Levi Leipheimer (Astana) and Christian Van de Velde (Garmin): Enjoy your rabid nationalist moment, Americans! Repeat podium finisher Levi’s gotta work for Lance so look for him to take a stage or two instead. Van de Velde was 5th last year but had a really nasty crash-out earlier in the year he’s still recovering from and may podium but not likely to win.
All right, now that we've nailed down the GC contenders, undoubtedly some French guy no-one's ever heard of is going to defy all prediction and take the race. Anyway, enjoy--and woo-hoo we love dear little Sastre!
And, a TMI News Roundup: last but not least, bad news for the boys in the band, though from the bambini they're constantly carting up on the podium they seem a pretty fertile lot unless the little tykes are just manly-man stage props: cycling more'n a bucket o' nothin' for these guys can seriously damage their sperm. On the plus side, they can plan ahead and freeze it up while it's still good. Heck, half of 'em are already intimately familiar with proper blood storage, how hard could this be?