The Other Summer Cycling Event in France

Dennis Menchov Wins The Giro, Can Lance Still Win Le Tour?

I’ve been following Lance Armstrong’s comeback in recent months and looking for clues about his chances in the big one, the Tour de France.

We’ve mentioned before that it’s difficult to compare the contenders in the few months before Le Tour.

They don’t race directly against each other, so for example during the recent Giro d’Italia Alberto Contador was absent, training rather than racing.

If the target is ‘Le Tour’, then hitting peak form too early can be counter-productive.  So Dennis Menchov’s victory in the closest race to Le Tour might mean nothing come July.  Back in June 2004, Iban Mayo beat Lance Armstrong by 2 minutes in a time trial up Mont Ventoux.  That was his peak – 4 weeks later he was forced to retire from the Tour.

So who are the contenders, in my opinion?

I believe there are four:

1.  Lance Armstrong.

How many Lance?
He broke a collar bone a few months ago which set back his preparation.  In terms of winning the Giro d’Italia, the Giro came too early.  But there were clues.  In the final time-trial he finished well beaten.  But by then it had started raining, so the later riders were all slower unless they took big risks.  Like the winner, Menchov, and the runner-up Di Luca.  In the mountains he supported team mate Levi Leipheimer, 3rd in The Tour in 2007, and Lance was stronger on the big climbs.

The Giro will have been spectacular training for Lance, and he finished 12th overall.  That isn’t respectable, it’s amazing.

2.  Alberto Contador.

Alberto amiring the scenery
Winner of the last 3 Grand Tours he’s ridden (the Tour de France in 2007 and the Giro d’Italia and the Vuelta d’Espana in 2008 – he wasn’t able to ride in last year’s Tour), Contador is nominally the leader of Lance’s team.  He’s very young to be a multiple ‘Grand Tour’ winner, and he’s getting stronger with each year rather than weaker.

He didn’t win Paris-Nice this year when he should have – but he showed enough.  The last 3 times he’s run a similar race, he won.  It’s hard to look past that.

3.  Ivan Basso.

Ivan Basso, looking slightly pensive perhaps?
Winner of the Giro in 2007, following a 2nd in the 2006 Tour, Basso was a red-hot favourite for the Tour in 2007.  Thrown out on the eve of the Tour amidst the doping controversy surrounding ‘Operacion Puerto’, Basso ended up serving a 2-year ban.

But he came back for the Giro this year, and he beat Lance, finishing 5th.  He’s the right age for a Tour winner at 31, and at his peak you’ve never seen anybody climb like Basso.

4.  Andy Schleck.

Andy Schleck, my pick
Andy Schleck might be considered a dark horse in this company, but actually I reckon he might be Lance’s biggest threat.

The younger brother of Frank, he hasn’t won much yet although he’s been considered a likely contender since placing 2nd in the Giro of 2008.

Don’t be fooled by his performance in last year’s Tour – he was part of Bjarne Riis’ CSC team, and they rode as a team.  It wasn’t Andy’s turn, he worked for brother Frank and eventual winner Sastres and still came 12th as well as winning ‘Best Young Rider’.

Then, earlier this year, it all changed.  Following a 2nd place in the classic La Flèche Wallonne, a few days later he raced clear to win Liege-Bastogne-Liege, a huge race to win.  Most cycling fans think he will win the Tour de France, more than once.  And it might start this year.

The Teams.

Lance’s big advantage during the last 6 of his 7 victories was his fantastic leadership of the Tour’s strongest team.  He was the undisputed leader, and everyone at US Postal / Discovery rode for Lance.  The schizophrenic attitude of Telekom, riding with three leaders in Vinoukorov, Kloden and Ullrich, was shown up horribly by Armstrong’s brilliant tactical use of his teammates.  Frankly, at times, it looked like men against boys, and the men always won.
But the best team since Lance retired has been CSC under Bjarne Riis, now Team Saxo Bank.  Having a good team, having good tactics, and having a team that understands and carries out its tactics, is a big deal.  It will count for a lot.

So, what’s my prediction?

Still Lance.  I can’t believe, after his 7 victories as single-minded leader of a dominant team, that either Lance or team boss Johann Museeuw would be so stupid as to race the Tour without deciding that either Contador or Armstrong is the leader.  And it will be Armstrong, and that’s why he’ll win.

Lance pioneered the use of science in his training, and as soon as he announced his comeback I thought “he’s done some measurements, and he’s calculated that he can win. There is a killer stat somewhere in there, and he’s decided it’s enough”.

But if Astana don’t ride for a single leader, I’m going to stick my neck out.  Contador doesn’t appear to be a great time triallist, but he’s improved to an almost unbelievable degree, like only true champions do.  Basso, if he’s back to his best, can show even Contador a clean pair of heels in the high mountains.  But Andy Schleck is like a ballet dance on a bike.

Look out for him, because if it isn’t Lance it will be Andy Schleck.

Now watch him crash out in stage 1.

Here’s what the bookmakers Betfair think:

Contador 13/10
Armstrong 13/2
Schleck  9/1
Evans  12/1
Basso  69/1

Unless I’ve missed something really obvious Basso is a serious contender.  At those odds he’s worth having a bit of fun with – and if you shop around you can get over 100/1.  That’s just stupid.

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