Friday, July 31, 2009

Weekend Preview - UPDATE

I knew it was too good to be true...

The UCI has just announced that Euskaltel's Mikel Astarloza tested positive on June 26 for recombinant EPO. He is of course being considered innocent until proven guilty, but he certainly won't be participating in tomorrow's Clasica San Sebastian.

Otherwise, it casts a shadow on what had been--until this point--a clean Tour de France. Astarloza was the winner of Stage 16.

Weekend Preview - Clasica San Sebastian

The rest of the season kicks-off in earnest tomorrow with the annual running of the Clasica San Sebastian. Starting and finishing in San Sebastian, the 237km race usually suits punchy climbers and one day specialists able to hang over the race’s major climb, the Jaizkibel, coming with about 39km to go.

Locally called the Donostia-Donostia Klasikoa (Basque for “Winner Gets a Funny Hat”), the race always features an intriguing start list of riders coming-off the Tour and others beginning the slow build for the Vuelta and Fall Classics. This year is no different.

Topping the list of Tour participants is none other than the winner himself, Astana’s Alberto Contador. Runner-up Andy Schleck takes the line as well with Saxo Bank, however both might play more of a supporting role within their respective teams. Liquigas brings a roster stacked with it's major Tour protagonists, Franco Pellizotti, Roman Kreuziger, and Vincenzo Nibali.

For me though, the true favorites will be riders looking to this race with hopes of salvaging their summers: Cadel Evans, Damiano Cunego, and Alejandro Valverde to name a few. Evans has showed glimpses of talent in races like this before, however he has yet to win one. Cunego is better choice; he’s hoping to end the season on high note and this would be a great way to start. But the top favorite has to be Valverde. He’s the reigning champion and he’s spent the entire month of July stewing over his exclusion from the Tour. San Sebastian is his first chance to reassert himself as one of the top riders in the world.

Outsiders? Watch for Mikel Astarloza. This is Euskaltel’s home race, and he showed in the Tour the form and talent necessary to win a race like this one. His teammate Samuel Sanchez is holding-out for later in the year and could provide valuable support—if he doesn’t go for it himself. AG2R's Rinaldo Nocentini could show that his week in yellow was no fluke with a win here. And let’s not forget the talented Frenchmen from BBox, Thomas Voeckler and Pierrick Fedrigo. At Pavé, a sentimental favorite is Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel; he’s been so close to a big win this year.

And don’t forget the fast men! Pippo Pozatto and Oscar Freire are both listed as starters. Should a large group come to the finish, they could take it.

One final note: the start list above does not include Columbia-HTC or Cervelo TestTeam. There have been several versions floating around over the past few days; we’ll change the link if we find something more reliable.

How about you? Who's your favorite to win the big, floppy hat? Share your comments with the rest of us below.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Team Radio Shack - What Should Lance Armstrong Do?

The cycling world has been a-twitter (literally) since last Thursday when Lance Armstrong announced the formation of Team Radio Shack.

And while per UCI regulations riders and teams are not allowed discuss contract negotiations and signings before September 1st, it’s never too early to speculate. Rumors are flying!

Apparently, the usual Astana suspects are in for Team Radio Shack including Levi, Kloden, Horner, Rast, Zubeldia, Brajkovic, and Popovych. Rumors swirl around Andy Schleck too. It's said that Armstrong wants him on the team, but without his brother Frank. (Lance thinks Frank will limit Andy’s progression.) Andy and Frank’s manager (their dad) has pointed-out there’s still a year left on his riders’ contracts and adding that he hasn’t been contacted by Johan Bruyneel. Can you read between the lines on this one?

As for the rest of the team, it’s a great opportunity to have some fun playing everyone’s favorite game: What Should Lance Armstrong Do?

Today’s topic for WSLAD?: Which riders should Lance sign for Team Radio Shack?

Let’s begin with the obvious:

1. Ivan Basso - Even before the Radio Shack announcement, Ivan Basso was sucking-up to Big Tex. Before he was outed by Operaçion Puerto, Basso was already riding for Bruyneel at Discovery. With Radio Shack, Basso will get to play his own hand at the Giro while serving as a super-domestique in the Tour. And as for Liquigas trying to keep him, would you pay good money to keep an aging Basso at the risk of losing Vincenzo Nibali and/or Roman Kreuziger? I wouldn’t. For an early clue as to which way Basso’s heading, look to see the interplay between him and any future teammates at this fall’s Vuelta. Will he take an especially aggressive approach to Vinokourov? Will he and Levi or Kloden be seen working in cahoots at any point? These could all be early indicators of Basso’s 2010 allegiances.

But while Basso’s signing would cause a stir in Italy, he’s still just another GC rider. For a truly well-rounded team, he’ll need a sprinter, someone like…

2. Mark Cavendish - What better way is there to cause a splash than by signing the world’s most electrifying and polarizing rider since Lance? Cavendish would give the team some easy wins both home and abroad; even an average season for Cavendish means 12-15 wins. He’s sponsored by Nike, is an English-speaker, and comes from one of Lance’s rivals, all traits working in his favor. Yes, he’s under contract and will certainly be expensive to obtain, but Lance has the capital to afford such a move. That said, signing Cavendish would probably be contingent upon Radio Shack signing…

3. Mark Renshaw - Anyone watching this year’s Tour saw the importance of Renshaw to Cavendish’s success. On the Champs Elysée, Renshaw could have taken the win himself had Cavendish decided to give it to him. If I were Bill Stapleton, I’d give a Renshaw a big raise now, forcing Cavendish to choose between leaving him behind or paying a significant chunk of his own 2010 salary to get him to Radio Shack.

The next rider in this week’s addition of WSLAD? is an old favorite:

4. George Hincapie - This signing would give Radio Shack instant credibility with fans possessing a soft-spot for George—a group of fans who also might have a bit of a hardened attitude toward Lance. Coupled with Cavendish and Renshaw, Team Radio Shack would now have the most powerful sprint in the world. Coupled with someone to be mentioned in a moment, Lance would have a team solid enough to contend for the Paris-Roubaix victory George so deserves. Can you imagine Lance’s legacy if he’s able to say he built the team that brought Hincapie a Roubaix title? Surely that’s an honor Lance wouldn’t be able to pass-up.

But to win Roubaix, Hincapie needs a teammate able to ride with him well into the race’s final stages, someone almost capable of winning the race himself. Someone like…

5. Stijn Devolder - Yes, yes, I know. Now this team’s roster is approaching only the New York Yankees in terms of talent and payroll. But if I were Lance, I would want a team that can dominate on several fronts, not just in Grand Tours and week-long stage races. Signing Devolder gives Radio Shack a proven winner for the Classics. Working together, he and Hincapie could easily pull a Flanders-Roubaix double. But he rides for Quick Step, right? Not so fast, my friends.

I see a rift developing in Quick Step. For two years in a row, Devolder’s won the Tour of Flanders at the expense of Tom Boonen. Both times Boonen went-on to win Roubaix the following week, thus dampening any potential flame-out between the two Belgian’s. But behind the scenes, I sense the henhouse is getting to be a bit too small for two roosters. And while it’s tempting to say Patrick Lefevre’s grown tired of Boonen’s antics, I don’t think he can deny that Boonen’s simply the bigger, more talented rider (when he’s not snorting cocaine). Thus, Devolder might have an opportunity to find work elsewhere. And let’s not forget, Devolder has ridden for Lance and Bruyneel before, as has our penultimate candidate…

6. Jurgen Van Den Broeck - VDB2’s a rider who showed this year he has the ability necessary for success at the sport’s highest level. Some of Lance’s most trusted domestiques are getting old; he’ll need to develop some supporting talent soon to ensure the depth of the team in years to come.

And our final rider?

7. Johan Vansummeren - Okay, maybe I’m getting carried-away. I just think he’s terrific. In the classics and the Tour he showed incredible class and power. If I were Lance, I’d sign him straight-away, put him on my classics and Tour roster, and watch the wins come-in.

Okay, so now the roster’s more or less full, but two issues remain:

First of all, there’s the Taylor Phinney question. US fans are expecting Taylor to be riding side-by-side with Lance next year. The best thing for Phinney though is another year of road-specific U23 competition, followed-by a September call-up as a stagiare. Then they can set him loose—gently—in 2011.

And finally, is signing Andy Schleck really a good idea? I wager it isn’t. Andy’s blossomed under Bjarne Riis at CSC and Saxo Bank. Pulling him away from his comfort zone—and his brother—might prove detrimental. Yes, he’s talented, but he does not seem to possess the TT skills necessary to win Grand Tours like the Tour de France. Were I Lance, I’d go after Vincenzo Nibali, a more complete rider in my opinion, and more suited to winning the Tour. Give him a year to ride for Lance, then turn the team over to him in the 2011 Tour, with Lance driving the car.

That’s it for this edition of WSLAD?. It's fun building a roster when it's someone else's budget, isn't it?

What about you? What do you think Lance should do with Team Radio Shack? Share your comments below.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Tour de France Wrap-up - The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Ever seen a spaghetti western? To me, this year’s Tour might as well have been directed by Sergio Leone and played over a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. Stark landscapes, aging heroes, young upstarts, pistols, you get the idea… Where they had Clint Eastwood, we had Lance Armstrong. Where they had a cast of Spanish-American outlaws, we had Alberto Contador. They had their showdowns, we had Mont Ventoux. And don't get me started on dialogue!

So whether or not you think the good guy won or lost, here’s Pavé’s look at The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly of the 2009 Tour de France.

(Let this video play in the background as you read--the effect's much better.)

The Good
1. Alberto Contador’s Win - Whether you were rooting for him or against him, you have to be impressed by Contador’s victory. His prowess on any given terrain was reminiscent of Spain’s other great Tour champion, Miguel Indurain. Alberto has 3 Tours to go before he’ll be on par with Big Mig, but he’s certainly well on his way. One can only hope the rumors beginning to surface and the questions beginning to be asked prove unfounded.

2. Lance Armstrong’s 3rd Place - To me, Armstrong’s 3rd place is a good thing—and I mean that in the sense that it’s better he didn’t win. A win for Lance would have seemed too scripted, too unreal for a sport that’s seen its share of unbelievable events. An 8th victory after about 4 years of retirement would have brought more rumors, more accusations, and more talk of "it’s too good to be true”. 3rd place allows Lance to bask in the glow of terrific comeback and talk of what might have been, while still looking ahead to next year with the hope that he might go a couple steps higher. Today, we all have to at least admit that maybe the guy’s mortal after all. For the sake of Lance's reputation, "mere mortal" might not be a bad title--for now.

3. The Youth Movement - A look down the Top-10 will reveal a glimpse into the Tour’s future—and it’s a good one. Young guns like Andy Schleck, Vincenzo Nibali, and Roman Kreuziger seem destined for Tour glory one day. This talent combined with the peaking stars like Bradley Wiggins and Frank Schleck will make for some terrific battles over the next few years. Young climbers such as Jurgen Van Den Broeck and Brice Feillu look poised to blossom into riders their respective countries can rally behind in July. And remember folks, that Spanish guy who won? He’s only 26!

4. Mark Cavendish - Man, oh man! Or should I say, “Manx”? Cavendish was heads and shoulders—literally, on some occasions—ahead of his competitors. While I still would argue that his team deserves half the credit, we still need to acknowledge the accomplishments of the most electrifying British rider since Chris Boardman rode to victory in the Prologue using Mavic’s electronic ZAP components. Before the Tour, I suspected Columbia might win 10 stages; I wasn’t betting on Cavendish winning 6 all by himself. Think of it, the guy won more than one third of the entire race! The record for wins in a year is 8, perhaps a bit lofty in this day and age. That said, I’ll never doubt Cavendish again. Now, about that mouth…

5. The Race was Clean - Were it not for Danilo Diluca and a handful of other CERA positives from earlier in the year, we might have had a race where we didn’t even think of doping. But I’ll settle for a Tour free of positives, raids, and expulsions. Time might tell a different story, but for now we all should satisfied.

The Bad
1. France’s GC Hopes - As we mentioned earlier, there might be some relief on the horizon, but for now, we have to consider it bad when your country does so poorly that the New York Times takes up space writing about it. Blame it on what you will, but it’s not good when your best GC rider was 10th, and that itself is largely due to a long breakaway on a transition stage. What does France have to do to develop a legitimate contender for the overall win in its national tour? Maybe another Norman conquest would do it? Wiggins and Cavendish would look good riding for the les bleus, non?

2. Blah, blah, blah - I won’t go so far as to call it ugly, but this year’s race sure seemed filled with trash talk: team against team, rider against rider, teammate against teammate, director against rider, etc. Maybe it’s a good thing; were they to just shut-up and ride we might have spent more time wondering if the race was indeed as boring as people say it was. For my money though, I wish people would have spent less time jabbering and more time winning--or at least attacking. Wins make you a legitimate contender/rider/team, not how well you run your mouth.

The Ugly
1. Former Champs/Current Chumps - Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre, and Denis Menchov should be embarrassed. Cadel Evans has probably just ridden himself out of a contract. Sastre’s just ridden himself into the Vuelta (his third Grand Tour this year). And Denis Menchov’s just ridden his win in the Giro out of everyone’s memory. Evans has proven he’s as mentally weak as we had suspected before the race started. His losses during the first week demoralized rather than motivated him, leaving him as nothing more than road kill as the race hit the mountains. In the end he wasn’t even good enough to lead his own team, or help his replacement for that matter. Time for a shift in focus, Cadel. Classics and week-long stage races are the best you can hope for.

We thought Sastre would give it a go on Ventoux, instead he finished several minutes down, riding into Paris in a lackluster 17th-place overall. Was Lance right about last year’s Tour? And Denis Menchov? He crashed more frequently than Euskaltel in the Tour of Flanders. Seriously, I lost count after week 1. You can’t win if you can’t stay upright. Will both these riders use the Vuelta to end the season on a high note?

3. Big Budget Benelux Buffoons - Silence-Lotto, Quick Step, and Rabobank might have to re-consider accepting an invitation to next year’s race. All together they managed 1 stage win, and it took them 20 stages to get there. In the end it’s hard to say who’s the biggest disappointment as all three teams came to the race with several contenders in many areas. Cadel Evans, Greg Van Avermaet, Tom Boonen, Stijn Devolder, Sylvain Chavanel, Denis Menchov, Robert Gesink, Juan Antonio Flecha, and Oscar Freire represent a vertitable “Who’s Who” of professional cycling over the past 5-10 years. None of them managed a win. Some came close, but not enough to be counted as respectable given their experience, talent, and the level of expectation.

The biggest shame might have to be Tom Boonen, whose team worked so hard to get him on the line in the first place. Now Tom’s going to the Vuelta to salvage his season; anything short of a world title and his Spring exploits could be forgotten. Look for these teams to be the most active as the summer transfer period begins. Maybe this year they can avoid signing riders who will go from being Tour revelations to exposed cheats?

And that brings our feature to a close. Cue the guitar, trumpet, and zamfir.

What about you? What did you find to be the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of this year’s race?

Share your comments below.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 21 Wrap-up

To be honest, the final stage of the Tour de France is always a bit of a let-down for me. Not because of the racing, but because it means the end of the going to bed after your birthday party or on the night before school starts again...

We'll have more wrap-up throughout the week, but for now, one thought:

Mark Cavendish, despite all his shenanigans, is truly in a class above the rest. Hats-off to his team too, for getting him where he needs to be when he needs to be there. Flying under the flamme rouge for the final time today, George Hincapie completely took control of the sprint, swinging left, usurping Garmin's lead-out train, and getting his team to the front. Mark Renshaw took all the risks through the final bend, pulling Cavendish free, lengths ahead, and then sprinting to 2nd place on the day.

One complaint: the camera angle. Those by-the-side shots look great in the Olympics, but in cycling, I want to see it all unfold before me. Maybe we should blame Cavendish and his team for simply leaving everyone else out of the frame?

Thank you to everyone for checking-in--especially those of you who have left comments for the rest of us to enjoy!

Please keep returning for more thoughts, quips, and whatever else we think-up next!

Enjoy your Sunday!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 20 Wrap-up

If I told you before the Tour started that a Rabobank rider would win on Ventoux, would you have thought it would be Juan Manuel Garate? Didn’t think so. But he did, and in doing so salvaged what has to be considered a disappointing Tour for the oranje.

Tactics and wind certainly took their toll today, effectively negating the chance to see one of the race’s elite taking the win. But we did see some great racing, racing that produced the true champions of the 2009 Tour de France.

When it was all said and done, the GC remained largely unchanged. The podium remains intact, despite the best efforts of Andy Schleck to have his brother Frank to join him. Lance Armstrong was smart and efficient; giving just what was necessary to follow the men who threatened his 3rd place. He’ll need to offer a pat on the back to Alberto Contador, who rode a perfect race for his teammates. Contador needed to follow Andy Schleck as he was 2nd place on GC; but he rode strictly in the Luxembourger's wheel, only covering the move, looking back constantly to see where his teammates were.

Bradley Wiggins rode a consistent and courageous climb to retain his 4th place—as did Christian Vande Velde who held his 8th overall. Vincenzo Nibali rode a fabulous race, at one time bridging alone to Andy Schleck and Contador. Were it not for Schleck waiting for his brother’s chase group, Nibali might have climbed higher on GC. His Liquigas teammate, Roman Kreuziger, finally found his climbing legs. His ride pulled him into 9th place overall, two spots behind his teammate. It’s not as high as we predicted, but it’s a terrific result nonetheless.

Earlier in the week, we wondered whether or not it would be wise for Silence to move it’s eggs into Jurgen Van Den Broek’s basket; his ride today proves the switch was wise. His final week was nothing short of brilliant; he’ll finish the race 15th overall.

And finally, chapeau’s-off to Christophe Le Mevel, whose gutsy ride kept him in the Top-10. He’ll be the darling of the le presse for the next few days, and gives the French yet another reason to celebrate a terrific Tour.

Other surprises? We really thought Carlos Sastre would ride with the favorites today, ultimately taking the win. On the other hand, it was a pleasure to see Franco Pellizzotti do his polka dot jersey proud by hanging with the favorites and at one point looking like he would take the win.

And guess who finished next to Cadel Evans a bit more than 5 minutes back? George Hincapie! Not sure about which rider that says more at this point. But George will finish the race 19th overall--with a collarbone that's rumored to be broken--11 spots ahead of Cadel.

And last, but not least—have you ever seen so many people on one mountain? I heard reports of anywhere from 500,000 to 700,000!

Le Géant de Provence has spoken; now it’s your turn! Share your comments below.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 19 Wrap-up

Today's stage finished a bit ahead of schedule; the riders must want to rest-up for tomorrow's slog up Mont Ventoux. If you caught it, here's what you might have noticed:

1. Did you notice Carlos Sastre in a small group off the back of the peloton today? Look for him to win tomorrow; he has one of the fiercest uphill accelerations in the race and he has enough time between himself and the yellow jersey to warrant a longer leash.

2. Did you notice the Liquigas riders with him? Could tomorrow be a day for Roman Kreuziger? Could Roman at least partially validate Pavé’s pre-Tour expectations with a win on Ventoux?

3. Did you notice the rider (Rabobank?) hop the grassy roundabout to keep his position near the front of the peloton with 1.3km left? I think it was Freire; he's been known to make such moves in the past.

4. Did you notice Greg Van Avermaet coming home in 4th place? Too little, too late for the Silence-Lotto rider.

5. Did you notice Lance Armstrong stealing 4 seconds over the other GC men? Will someone be kicking himself this time tomorrow?

6. And finally, did you notice the new Shimano 10-tooth cog on Cavendish’s bike? Must be a prototype or something—he clearly has a gear the others don’t. He won't get the green he so desires (see below), but will 6 stage wins for Mark be a reality come Paris?

What about you? What did you notice? Share your comments—and predictions for tomorrow—below.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Tour de France - Breaking News - Lance's New Team

Tech-buffs of the world are rejoicing over the news that Alpha Male numero uno, Lance Armstrong, will be leading a new team sponsored by Radio Shack.

More news will come, but for now here's a link to the new team's website.

Let the Post-Tour transfer talk begin!

Tour de France - Stage 18 Wrap-up

Alberto Contador has all but won the 2009 Tour de France with one of the most dominant individual time trial performances by a maillot jaune since his current teammate, Lance Armstrong.

Going into the day, it was assumed that Contador would do well, particularly against the other GC favorites. But winning the stage outright was not entirely expected—certainly not beating the likes of Fabian Cancellara.

It was statement that needed to be made though. With all of the talk surrounding his tactics, his relationship with his teammates, and the pending announcement from his current director and teammate, Contador clearly needed to remind everyone that the Tour de France is indeed a bike race where actions speak louder than words.

The pundits can say what they will, but it cannot be said that Contador is not a worthy champion. And no matter for whom he rides, he will go into the 2010 race as the overwhelming favorite. Furthermore, Contador’s win just might have done his disgruntled teammates a favor. By winning today and padding his already fat lead, Contador has given Armstrong and Kloden the room they need to try and move themselves up the GC and perhaps win the stage—all without doing damage (barring something catastrophic) to Contador’s status atop the podium.

So maybe, just maybe, Johan Bruyneel will buy Alberto a bottle of bubbly tonight since his performance today has given the team an opportunity to ride for the riders it obviously wanted to ride for in the first place.

It’s just too bad that the one who will actually win the Tour wasn’t one of them.

Other thoughts from today’s action:

1. Saturday’s biggest battle will be for 3rd place in Paris. Lance Armstrong, Bradley Wiggins, and Andreas Kloden are separated by a mere 13 seconds. Perhaps Contador will play the role of teammate, working to get one of his colleagues beside him on the top 3 steps? Could Andy Schleck and Wiggins both crack, giving Johan Bruyneel his dream of an Astana 1-2-3?

2. But Armstrong gave Wiggins some bulletin board material, making it quite clear that he doesn’t consider the Brit a threat on Ventoux. I wouldn’t be so sure, Tex. Yeah, you dropped Wiggo yesterday (Stage 17), but that was after a series of tough climbs. Saturday’s pretty much a one-trick pony—similar in structure to Arcalis—and Wiggins will be well-protected by a unified team. Wiggins clearly isn’t afraid to attack and Lance's comments today will certainly be ringing through his ears. Did Lance speak too soon?

3. Here's an assignment for you: when was the last time Armstrong didn’t finish in the Top-5 in an ITT? The Top-10? The Top-15? Can we take his claims of victory in the 2010 Tour seriously?

4. Vincenzo Nibali put in a disappointing performance today. He’s done well in ITT's before; his lackluster effort today (26th, 2:05 behind) was certainly a surprise.

5. Christophe Moreau’s coming-on strong during the final week, finishing 9th today. Look for him to go for glory on Saturday up Ventoux. A win there would be a terrific send-off to retirement and the perfect way to cap a wonderful 3 weeks for France.

What about you? What are your thoughts? Share your comments below.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 17 Wrap-up

Today the race evolved into the dual we were all expecting: Astana vs. Saxo Bank. We knew the Schleck’s would mount the most serious threat to Astana’s race leadership, but we didn’t know that by the end of the stage Contador's rivals might now be his only allies. They say to keep your friends close and your enemies closer; but what if you can't tell who's who?

It appears Saxo Bank has conceded the race to Contador—at least until Ventoux, when all bets might be off—more content today to try and take time from the riders they deem threats to Andy and Frank Schleck’s places on GC.

Contador seems to be getting a bit flustered (as he tends to do); his attack with 2km left to the summit of the Colombière did nothing more than drop his teammate Andreas Kloden. One can only wonder how many supporters Contador has left within his team; hopefully it won’t come back to bite him by the time the race gets to Paris.

At this point, Contador might have better support from his rivals, namely the Schleck’s, whom he was frequently seen talking to on the descent of the Colombière. And it makes sense: Lance Armstrong was clearly chasing Kloden who in turn was chasing Contador and the Schleck's. Can you blame the guy for being paranoid? Why put yourself at risk for later attacks from your own teammates?

The stage was a peace offering to the Schleck's; Contador knows he’ll gain time on them in tomorrow’s ITT, conceding the stage today might mean a bit less animosity on Ventoux—from them. What he can expect from his own teammates is anyone’s guess. Once again, I’d love to be a fly on the wall in Astana’s hotel tonight.

To me the stage’s most striking image was that of Armstrong, isolated over the top of the Colombière, chasing alone to protect his place on GC. When was the last time we saw that?

And you? What stood-out? What are your thoughts for tomorrow and the days beyond?

Share you comments below.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 16 Wrap-up

What an exciting finish to today’s stage! Congratulations to Mikel Astarloza for winning Euskaltel it’s first stage since Iban Mayo won on Alpe D’Huez in 2003.

Big loser today: Cadel Evans. Does anyone else think Silence should start riding for Jurgen Van Den Broeck? The former World Junior Time Trial Champion has finished 7th in the Giro and currently sits in 22nd overall, 11:11 behind the yellow jersey. However, the more significant gap is the less 4 minutes he sits behind Cadel Evans. Is it fair to expect Silence to completely abandon Evans’ hopes in exchange for his teammate’s chances?

Probably not, but the 26 year-old’s moving in the more favorable direction right now, and he’s certainly ridden a more aggressive race up to this point (albeit in support of Cadel). Could Silence pander to its Belgian sponsor and fan base by positioning Van Den Broeck for a stage win or higher GC position at the expense of Evans? At the very least, expect to see Van Den Broeck's leash loosened even more over the next few days, especially tomorrow and Saturday. At some point it will be time for Silence to see if the kid’s for real.

For tomorrow, expect more from Saxo Bank as it tries to create one last shake-up before Thursday’s time trial. Garmin would do well to try and gain some time as well, hopefully setting-up Wiggins for further gains around Lake Annecy.

In closing, our thoughts are with Jens Voigt. His crash coming-off the Petit-Saint-Bernard is perhaps the scariest I’ve seen since Joseba Beloki. At the end of the coverage today, it was said that there’s no threat of serious injury, but it’s safe to say he faces some tough days ahead.

What about you? Any thoughts on today's action?

Share your comments below.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday Musette - Think Spring!

Here are some things to keep you busy during the Tour’s second rest day:

1. Two weeks ago, I directed you to check-out the Flanders episode of Cervélo TestTeam’s documentary, Beyond the Peloton. The Roubaix episode’s up now too. Some great stuff! How many days until April?

2. And speaking of Roubaix, Red Kite Prayer posted a story—with photos—on Tom Boonen’s early Specialized prototype bike. It’s an interesting look behind the scenes of one of Roubaix’s most successful bikes over the past few years. Remember the days when aluminum was cutting-edge? My how time flies!

3. I've also ordered a copy of the new DVD, A Ride with George Hincapie. Look for a review to follow. I paid for it with my own lunch money, so I'll be able to say whatever I want about it. But if this trailer's any indication, it will be pretty good.

4. The Tour’s in the Alps now. Several years ago, one of Competitive Cyclist’s “What’s New” columnists treated himself to a little Alpine pain-fest. He recounts the experience in the “What’s New” archives. Click here to start at the beginning, then just click “Next Article” to continue through the rest. A fascinating read.

5. In closing, two notes about Pavé itself:

First, I’m sure some of you have noticed a lack of photography over the past several weeks. I’ve come to realize that including photo’s on the site—even when giving credit to the photographer or the site from which they came—is illegal. Not wanting to put Pavé at risk, I’ve decided to forgo photo usage, unless I’m able to obtain the consent of the photographer.

To that end, I’ve started contacting several photographers with the hopes of developing some relationships that might help us enhance the site.

To that end though, if you or someone you know happens to be a photographer—professional or amateur—who might like to contribute, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

And second, I’m not sure how terrific a milestone it is, but last week Pavé made its 100th post. Thank you to everyone for your patronage, your comments, and all the support you’ve provided over the last several months. I'm proud that this has grown from a lunchtime experiment to a site frequented by so many. That said we’ve got several things up our sleeve in the weeks to come; I hope you’ll continue to enjoy what Pavé provides.

Thanks and enjoy the beginning of your week!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 15 - Wrap-up

Well, it took two weeks, but the 2009 Tour de France finally exploded.

Here’s what we learned:

1. Alberto Contador is clearly head and shoulders above the rest. What we presumed on Arcalis was confirmed today; let the race for second begin. The only remaining question surrounding Contador regards how he will handle Lance Armstrong's new place in the Astana hierarchy. He will need to be a humble, gracious leader, not allowing himself to become overwhelmed or jealous by the scrum of journalists covering Lance’s new role. Once the race is firmly in his grasp, with the win all but certain, Alberto might consider helping Lance win a stage of his own—maybe one finishing atop a mountain?

2. A new phase of Lance’s career has begun. Just like his teammate, what we suspected in Spain has been proven in Switzerland: Lance is not the same rider he was during his 7 Tour wins. Lacking the uphill acceleration needed to follow sharp mountain attacks, Lance must now find a new role for himself—mentally and physically. In a way it’s a shame that so much was made about him winning the Tour in his comeback. Imagine if he and others had proclaimed a desire to simply finish in the Top-10? Had the expectations been set a bit lower, Lance’s performance to date would seem all the more incredible.

3. Did we say Roman Kreuziger? We meant Vincenzo Nibali. Kreuziger has consistently been a step behind in the mountains so far in this year’s Tour. While we thought he would rebound in the Alps, it’s apparent he just doesn’t have the form to ride with the leaders. A minute here, 30 seconds there, have added-up to mean 16th overall, 4:40 behind. Meanwhile, Vincenzo Nibali’s been steadily riding himself to a realistic shot at the podium. He sits in 7th, 2:51 back on Contador. The White Jersey is also within his reach; especially since he can time trial much better than Andy Schleck. Italy once again has a true contender for the Tour de France.

4. Bradley Wiggins is for real. Not content riding wheels up to Verbier, Wiggins attacked, gapping riders such as Armstrong and Cadel Evans. Like Nibali, his ability against the clock makes him a strong threat to Andy Schleck’s GC place. Add to the fact that he now has the support of Christian Vande Velde--a perfect lieutenant for Wiggo’s final week--and Garmin looks like it could have a man for the podium in Paris.

5. Too bad for Carlos Sastre. Without the bad first week, he might be in much better shape to create a stir from now to the end of race. For him, a win on Ventoux would be a nice consolation prize. How many men can say they've won on both l'Alpe Duez and Mont Ventoux?

6. Rinaldo Nocentini and Christophe Le Mevel rode respectable races today; they sit in 6th and 9th respectively on GC. It means nothing in the grand scheme of things; it's just nice to see riders attempt to surmount insurmountable odds.

7. And speaking of insurmountable odds, The Great French Hope, Brice Feillu, came home in 25th place today, leaving him 22nd overall. Can Brice ride himself into the Top-15? Oui, oui! If he does, he will bring upon himself the hopes of a nation starved for GC success in its home tour. He'll have tough shoes to fill for the next few years; but it's great for the sport nonetheless.

8. And last, but not least: when was the last time you won a Saint Bernard (or any live animal) for winning a bike race? Yeah, me neither.

There are many more stories from today's stage. What did we miss? What stood-out to you?

Share your comments with the rest of us below.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 15 - Mini-Preview

I have a gut feeling about tomorrow’s stage: Liquigas is preparing to go on the offensive. The clue?

Frederik Willems drifting-in off the back of today’s breakaway, almost 4 minutes down.

Insignificant? Maybe. But Willems has good directors, and good directors think beyond the racing in front of them to the days to come. Ever wonder why that rider who you know can time trial put in one of the day’s worst times? Because he was told to save himself for the next day by his director. Ever wonder why the guy with the killer sprint suddenly sat-up from the break? Because he was told to come back and drive the peloton by his director. I bet once it became apparent that Ivanov was gone for good, Willems was told to soft-pedal to the finish, cooling down in preparation for another big day in the saddle.

Another clue: Franco Pellizotti wearing the polka dot jersey. Yes, it’s a great chance for a capable rider to add another honor to his palmares, but it’s also a chance to get a talented man up the road in the Alps, ready to help his teammates should they struggle. The polka dot jersey gives just the excuse Liquigas needs for someone as potentially dangerous as Pellizotti to go off the front.

Look for Pellizotti to get himself in an early move, positioning himself to soak-up points on the five categorized climbs in the race’s first 135km. He’ll most likely be joined by Egoi Martinez; David Moncoutié needs to be there as well, if he really wants to try and get the jersey for himself by Paris. Saxo Bank could put a rider up the road as well (Jens Voigt?), setting the stage for later in the day when the Schleck’s might need a hand.

From there, it’s anyone’s guess, but expect the serious contenders to start showing some cards on the climb to Verbier. I think Liquigas' one-two punch of Kreuziger and Nibali could be the one start things--if Saxo Bank doesn't beat them to it. And if his teammates need him, look for Pellizotti to be there when it matters most.

Overall, it should be--hopefully--a terrific day of racing. Will we go into the second rest day with a better idea of who will take yellow to Paris? Will Nocentini hang-in to defend his jersey?

Share your predictions with the rest of us below.

Tour de France - Stage 14 - Wrap-up

Is Katusha's Sergei Ivanov one of the peloton’s craftiest riders or what? His attack with 10km to go in today’s stage was a lesson in timing. He observed the hesitation and lack of cohesion in his companions, and timed his move up the other side of the road to perfection. He knew that no one would want to pull the entire break up to him, effectively giving the stage to Daniele Bennati or Gerard Ciolek.

Once he got the gap, it was a simple—albeit painful— 10km individual time trial to the line in Besançon. Ivanov was clearly up to the challenge.

And just like that, the list of teams never to have won a stage in the Tour is down to 3.

Your thoughts? Share them below.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 13 - Wrap-up

Was anyone else cheering for Brice Feillu to take yellow today? And speaking of Feillu, his brother Romain had the honor of being thrown out of the Tour for NOT doping (he wasn’t allowed to take medicine for his asthma and stay in the race). Yellow for little brother Brice would have been a nice cadeau.

Could Feillu continue to gain time as the race progresses? With a flat day tomorrow and a chance for some recovery, might Sunday’s climb to Verbier offer him a chance at yellow? Or white? Astana would certainly welcome yet another opportunity for someone else to control the race for a few days—especially after losing Levi.

But today was all about Heinrich Haussler. Between the rain and Sylvain Chavanel—his early breakaway companion—I thought I was watching Dwars door Vlaanderen.

Haussler was simply fantastic. His descending skills left him alone following the Platzerwasel. With 30km to go, he rode as if there were 3; he stormed the final climb of the Col du Firstplan, gaining time on the peloton with each pedal stroke. He effortlessly big-ringed the final 5km, calmly coming to terms with his exploits.

And when he crossed the line: tears. In an era of showboating victory salutes, a humble, honest display of emotion is a welcome sight. Clearly, Haussler will be a man to be reckoned with next spring. Get used to the feeling, Heinrich, more big wins will come.

As for the favorites, they were clearly eager to allow the to race play itself out at the front, letting the rain dampen any potential fireworks. Sunday’s the next rendezvous for the GC men, setting the stage for what will certainly be an exciting final week.

Any thoughts on today’s action? Predictions for the weekend? Share your comments below.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 13 - Mini-Preview

As for tomorrow's Stage 13, things should heat-up again with a tough stage from Vittel to Colmar. It was to be run without radios, but I guess Monday's protest won-out. Look for an attack from teammates of favorites hoping to shake-up the GC. Prime candidates? Roman Kreuziger, Frank Schleck, and yes, Lance Armstrong.

All three have a higher-placed teammate they can say they're riding for, but all have aspirations of their own in the event things don't go as "planned".

Will 13 be the lucky lumber for one of these men or will their teammates continue to emerge triumphant?

Or will it be someone like Pozatto, Haussler, or Voigt taking the win?

And what about Nocentini? He's made a valiant defense of his yellow jersey, could he go on the offensive tomorrow hoping to wear it for one more day? Don't be surprised if he does!

What are your thoughts? Share them below.

Tour de France - Stage 12 - Wrap-up

Milram missed-out on another opportunity for a stage win today, begging the question:

Can you name the teams in this year’s Tour that have never won a stage?

Cue the Jeopardy music…and don’t read down if you don’t want it spoiled.

Here’s a hint: there are 4.

Had enough? Okay, here are the answers:

Well, I practically gave you one: Milram.

Two more should be easy since it’s the first year they’ve participated: Skil-Shimano and Katusha.

The fourth? Garmin-Slipstream.

Of the four, Milram has to be the most disappointing. They’ve been in the race since 2006, and after more than 3 tries still have no wins to their credit. And with riders like Alessandro Petacchi, Erik Zabel, Gerald Ciolek, Fabian Wegmann, and Linus Gerdemann, you can’t say that haven’t had the firepower (though the latter two have been on the team only since the beginning of this season). Milram’s been an active presence at the front on most days. Several times they’ve placed a rider in the day’s big break, and on several sprint stages they’ve been seen working to set-up their sprinter. So you can't say they haven't tried.

But no wins since 2006? Milram Corporate is either the most patient or the most oblivious title sponsor in the sport. Or maybe General Manager Gerry Van Gerwen (a really nice guy, by the way) has some pretty "interesting" photos of the company’s President/CEO?

Skil-Shimano deserves a bit of a pass as it’s their first go-round in le Grand Boucle. The team's made its presence known in breakaways and has made an attempt here and there to set-up Kenny Van Hummel in the sprints. If they keep it up, a stage win could be in their future (but people have been saying that about Milram since 2006).

However, Katusha has more reason to be a bit disappointed. Mikael Ignatiev’s been in a few breakaways, but that’s pretty much it. We've all been waiting for Filippo Pozatto to show himself at some point, but he’s received more headlines for his jersey design than his results. Worse still is the fact that Robbie McEwen and Geert Steegmans, the team’s two best stage options, didn’t even start! I still see Pozatto or Ignatiev taking a stage later in the race, but if they don’t, this will be the last year Katusha is given the benefit of the doubt.

And finally, there’s Garmin-(We Ride in the Winner’s)Slipstream. Close, but no cigar seems to be the motto for Jonathan Vaughters and his riders—close to the stage win, close to the podium. Despite the near-misses, there are positives though: Tyler Farrar’s consistently crept closer and closer to a sprint win and still could get one in the final week. Bradley Wiggins and Christian Vande Velde both lie in reach of the podium on the GC (but both need to lose some time in order to have a shout for a mountain stage win). As for breakaways, I think it’s safe to say the team is content to preserve its energies for the remaining critical stages.

This is the second year for the cleanest team in cycling to participate in the sport’s biggest race. At some point though, they’ll need to do more than just "be there". Will they take the next step between now and Paris?

What do you think?

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 11 - Wrap-up

Congratulations to Mark Cavendish! His 4th stage win this year gives him 8 for his young career, tying him with Barry Hoban for the most by a British rider. Mark’s team clearly has its field sprint strategy dialed-in—no matter the terrain.

Tyler Farrar has clearly asserted himself as one of the race’s top sprinters over the last two days. His confidence is rising and his team is starting to gel; I thought he was going to take it today. With a team as strong as Marky-Mark’s in the final few hundred meters, he might be just as unstoppable. Yauheni Hutarovich snuck-in in 3rd place today; look for him in Week 3.

And where has Tom Boonen been? 94th in the sprint yesterday, 16th today, he just doesn’t seem to have the desire to compete this year. Sure, he’s had some bad luck; but the last two days were tailor-made for him to at least give it a go. I sense there might be more to this story, but for now, all one can say is that Tom’s been a major disappointment—especially after his team fought so hard to get him to the race in the first place. What must Allan Davis be thinking?

What about you? What are you thinking? Share your comments below.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 10 - A Late Wrap-up

Did you think I was supporting the radio ban with a blog ban of my own? Not quite...

It must have been a boring day to be a director and a great day to be a rider. It’s shame so many seemed against even giving it a fair shake; it could have produced some great racing.

For me, the most memorable moment from today’s stage had nothing to do with radios—or the lack thereof—and it happened almost 100km from the finish line.

Kurt-Asle Arvesen, the victim of a rather innocent-looking fall, came-up from it obviously injured. Gingerly getting back on his bike, one could immediately see the effects of an apparently broken collarbone as he struggled to put weight on his handlebars. After some time alone off the back, he managed to regain the peloton, only to spend the majority of his time receiving treatment (and a friendly pull) from the Tour’s race doctor (and his car).

As the race passed the feed zone though, one couldn’t help but wonder how Arvesen would possibly receive a musette, let alone take food from it. But just then, as the camera panned-up the road through the caravan, you could see the Swiss Champ jersey of Fabian Cancellara soft-pedaling back through the field--not with one bag, but two. Riding alongside Arvesen, Spartacus patiently sifted through the second bag, gently passing Arvesen his choice of replenishment. It was a touching display of friendship and teamwork in the midst of a race beset with prima donna’s and entitlement. One that might have passed-by overlooked on a day not raced piano, piano.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Tour de France - Rest Day Report - 5 Indefensible Claims Re-Visited

Just before the Tour began in Monaco, we published 5 Indefensible Claims about this year's race. Outrageous, unfounded, and perhaps politically incorrect, they were an interesting way to generate some conversation about the events to come.

So let's take advantage of today's rest day in Limoges to see how we're doing.

Here we go:

1. This year’s Tour will be free of any doping controversy.

So far, so good. Today is an important day though, as doping scandals seem to come-out during rest days. But up to now, we’re riding a clean race. Let’s stop talking so we don’t jinx it.

2. Mark Cavendish will win one individual stage and one stage only.

Okay my Union Jack friends, you got me here. Cavendish quickly won two stages, immediately making me eat my words. And with Cavvie still in the race, and three flat stages to come this week, he looks to add to his total. Time to give respect where it’s due.

3. French riders or riders on French teams will win more stages than any other country, making it a banner year for the “home équipe”.

I’m most proud of this claim, not only because it feels good to be right (so far), but because it’s good for the race itself. As it stands, the French tally includes 3 stage wins, 2 days in the yellow jersey (and counting), and several days in the polka-dot jersey as well. For weeks we’ve been touting Voeckler and Fedrigo to win stages; so no surprises there. But Brice Feillu? We never saw that one coming, particularly on the first summit finish of the race. Hopefully he can continue to ride well as the race progresses; it would be fantastic to have a new French hope for the mountains and perhaps the GC. Allez!

4. Lance Armstrong Won’t Finish the Race.

This looks like it will turn-out to be incorrect as Lance currently sits in 3rd place overall, only a handful of seconds away from the yellow jersey. And while misfortune is always possible, it just isn’t sporting to wish it on a rider simply for the sake of having an indefensible claim turn-out correct.

So bad luck aside, it looks like Lance has only the weight of his own ego to contend with. Clearly he considers himself to be a top favorite for his 8th title, but what happens if he cracks? How will his ego respond? Will he dutifully assume the role of domestique, content in helping a teammate go for the win? Or will he implode, leaving the race early to go home and pout?

I still think he’s a step below Contador; lacking the acceleration necessary to follow the sharpest mountain attacks. We’ll have to wait until next Sunday when the race climbs to Verbier to get our first look.

5. Roman Kreuziger will win the Tour de France.

The jury’s still out on this one. Right now Kreuziger sits in 14th, 2:40 behind the maillot jaune. He lost a bit of time on Stage 3, when wind (and Columbia) split the group, and he lost a minute on Arcalis. He and his teammate, Vincenzo Nibali, are still riders to be reckoned with; if they are given a bit of latitude they could pull-off a shock. However, at this point, it seems both are content to follow wheels to as high a placing as possible, unwilling to attack lest it hurt their overall chances.

As the race evolves though, Kreuziger will improve. He enjoys riding in the Alps and has had success in the Swiss stage races the Tour de Romandie and the Tour de Suisse. Does he face a monumental task in going for the win? Yes. Have crazier things happened? Yes. Let’s see where things stand a week from now.

So overall, as it stands right now we'll give ourselves a 2 out of 5. Solid, but not great.

What about you? Any indefensible or outrageous claims for the second week? The rest of the race?

Share your predictions below.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Tour de France - Stages 8 and 9 - Weekend Wrap-up

Admit it, you felt a bit let-down by Stages 8 and 9. After such an exciting climb up Arcalis on Friday, you wanted more fireworks from the remaining two days in the Pyrennes this weekend. It's okay, you can say it.

But we didn’t get it—at least to the degree we were hoping. Yes, Stage 8 included 3 categorized climbs including two 1st Category ascents; and Stage 9 included the Col d’Aspin and the Col du Tourmalet, two legendary mountains. But on both days the organizers put all the heavy lifting at the beginning of each stage, all but rendering these climbs moot. For example, from the top of Tourmalet in today’s Stage 9, there were still 70 kilometers left to race—almost half the stage. Couldn’t ASO have done more to bring-on the Pyrenean fireworks?

Regardless, some great racing ensued, particularly if you’re a fan of breakaways and aggressive opportunists. Luis Leon Sanchez and Pierrick Fedrigo are two worthy winners, both after spending the majority of the day in breakaways. In Sanchez' case, his exploits have moved him up the GC to 11th place overall; a standing he can certainly improve as the race continues.

Now the Tour heads north for a rest day followed by 3 relatively flat stages through the center of France. Tuesday brings Bastille Day and a stage rideen—unless Bruyneel and his petition win-out—without the aid of radios in the peloton’s ears. Exciting racing should ensue.

Things get interesting again on Friday in another stage without radios through the Alsace region. Several tough climbs speckle the route, including two 1st Category ascents. Will it be a day for another breakaway, or will we see the GC battle begin to boil again?

The week ends with the race’s entry into the Alps, culminating with a summit finish in the village of Verbier. Will Astana end the week in yellow? If so, who will the bearer be? Will Saxo or Liquigas succeed in breaking the race apart? Will Evans, Sastre, and Menchov climb their way back into contention?

All in all, with one week down and two to go, several questions remain unanswered. But one thing’s certain: it’s been a great Tour so far, and it looks to get even better.

What are your thoughts on the first week? How do you see things shaping-up in week two?

Share you thoughts below. And thanks for reading!

Friday, July 10, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 7 Wrap-up

It wasn’t as explosive as some might have expected or desired, but the action today was certainly revealing. Here’s what we saw:

1. French housewives have a new hearthrob and his name is Brice Feillu. Svelte, handsome, a mountaintop winner in the Pyrennes, and the polka dot jersey to boot! Can you say Ree-chard Virenque? (Now teach your brother to climb; you needed to wait 28 minutes to celebrate with him.) He's also the first neo-pro to win a Tour stage since an American did it in 1993!

2. Italians have their first yellow jersey in nine years. Tifosi everywhere are celebrating. But how long will Nocentini keep it?

3. As for Astana, it’s now clear that they came to the race with perhaps the strongest team ever to take the line in the Tour. Three riders in the lead group, several more able to ride tempo and blow the race apart. We’ve said it once and we’ll say it again: it’s their race to lose.

First of all, we need to credit Lance with being a good teammate. He rode wheels and let Contador fly when the time was right.

But I’m not sure he had a choice. Watching Lance in the last few kilometers, he appears to have lost the killer acceleration that made him so terrific in the mountains. The power is there, but the alacrity with which he could leave his competitors seems to have diminished with age. Of course, I could be wrong. Lance might have been dutifully playing the role of dedicated teammate, confident in knowing that Contador was softening the competition for his own assault on yellow. But I'm not buying it. While Lance is definitely one of the strongest riders in the race, he’s a small step below his old self and his teammate. Podium and a stage? Yes. An 8th title? Nope.

And speaking of Contador, how about his acceleration? He rode clear past Jurgen Van Den Broeck and the moto! In the end, he only gained a handful of seconds, but the ease with which he broke free has to put fear in the hearts of the rest. With such talent and such a team, Contador is now the top favorite for victory.

One last thought before moving-on: are we discounting Levi Leipheimer? He's never struggled to follow the leaders, and he seems to have been given little responsibility to work--yet. Could he quietly ride his way onto the podium? Maybe the Giro was the best thing for him?

4. As for the rest of the lead group, credit Cadel Evans with at least trying to stir the pot. Too bad though, he just doesn’t seem to have it compared to Contador, nor does his team have an answer to Astana (although Van Den Broeck was nice to see at the front). Garmin rode exeptionally well with Wiggins and VDV both riding-in with the favorites. It will be very interesting to see if Wiggo can keep this up as the mountains continue.

Andy Schleck confirmed he's a top contender, but will need to attack as the race progresses. He appears to have an acceleration approaching Contador's; he’ll just need to turn his reactivity into proactivity. Brother Frank finished with him, boding well for the mountains to come.

5. As we suspected, Tony Martin seems to be Columbia’s most talented GC rider. He’s got a good grip on white, and never appeared in difficulty today. Columbia should put Kirchen, Momfort, and Rogers to work for him (he’s the best time trialist of the lot). Then they need to sign him to a long-term contract.

And Liquigas? A mixed bag. Nibali hung-in and now lies at 1:54; Kreuzinger lost a bit at the end and has slipped down to 2:40. To be honest, I thought the opposite would have been the case with Nibali slipping while Kreuziger hung tough. That said, there’s a lot left to race and Liquigas is a strong, but continually underrated team. I still see one of these two finishing on the podium—at least Top-5.

6. Are we missing anyone? Sastre and Menchov both hung-in well, unfortunately that’s not going to get them anywhere in this year’s race. Like so many others, they need to attack. Following wheels won't cut it. Karpets was there for Katusha, but does anyone take him seriously? Don't think so.

What about you? What do you see happening over the next two days? Is Lance conceding leadership or biding his time?

Share your thoughts with the rest of us.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 7 - Arcalis Preview

Beginning tomorrow, the Tour de France enters the Pyrenees with a mountaintop finish in Arcalis. It’s the first of three Pyrenean stages; but since it’s the only summit finish, it's most likely the most significant.

As we pointed-out earlier in the week, the Pyrenees will provide us with the race’s next big GC shake-up following Tuesday’s TTT. Here’s a run-down of what could or should happen.

Hopefully tomorrow will give us a clearer idea of who will lead Astana. But it’s certainly not a given. While there is already much speculation, for me it will simply come down to whether Armstrong and Contador race aggressively or conservatively. Leipheimer and Kloden will play a role, but I think it’s safe to say they’ll be expected to work for the other two. If these men race aggressively—attacking to seize control of the race for good—expect whichever rider attacks to say he was just softening things up for whichever rider didn’t—especially if the former gains time on the latter. I wasn’t attacking him. I was just setting him up for the win. How was I to have known he wouldn’t drop the others? It’s one of the oldest cop-outs in the book, and we could hear it again tomorrow. Unless…

…Astana takes a more conservative approach. Frankly, that might be the best option at this point. It’s still relatively early in the race, and they have 4 of the 5 best-placed riders on GC. The team could simply sit back and let the other teams bring the racing to them, take turns following accelerations until the lead group is whittled down to a size as small as they feel it can get, and then play it by ear for the stage and the yellow jersey. In short, it’s really not their race to make—at this point. Unless…

...Lance Armstrong decides to take things into his own hands. The Armstrong of old would have used tomorrow as his first chance to kill the will of the competition, most likely by attacking early in the climb, ultimately taking minutes from his rivals in what would later prove to be the last day anyone else would see yellow. The trouble with this plan now lies in the fact that his greatest rivals are his own teammates, and by attacking now would be attacking them as well. Could Armstrong use tomorrow to put his stamp on the Tour and his team? Or will he corral his aspirations for now, letting the dynamics within the race and his team play-out a bit?

As for the rest of the Contenders, tomorrow is their first day to try and take some time back from the Astana-naut. As mentioned, it is still early, and we might see several riders try and gauge their efforts according to how everyone else is going. But while no one wants to show his hand too early, for the Schleck’s, the Liquigas boys, whomever is leading Columbia, and Christian Vande Velde, tomorrow will be a new chance to prove they are still in the picture.

That said, it can also be expected that at least one of these riders will crack—possibly catastrophically. There’s always a shock to the legs during the first day in the high mountains. We might see something of the same tomorrow; my prime candidate is Frank Schleck and possibly Vande Velde. The first big mountain is always a shock to a few.

And finally, we should see some of the Pretenders take a stab at pulling themselves back into the race. Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre, and Denis Menchov (whose race is all but over after losing more time in Stage 6) won’t have many chances to gain significant chunks of time; tomorrow’s their first opportunity. They won’t have long leashes—especially Evans and Sastre—but look for them to attack early and often. If they choose to ride conservatively, it will be to their GC doom.

That’s it for today. Who are your picks for tomorrow? Will Lance take yellow? Or will Contador regain control of his team? Will the Schleck’s or Liquigas announce themselves as legitimate contenders for the win? Will Evans, Sastre, and Menchov ride themselves into a position to be taken seriously?

Share your comments with the rest of us!

Tour de France - Stage 6 - Wrap-up - The Rain in Spain...

It was yet another exciting stage today, thanks in large part to David Millar hoping he could emulate Thomas Voeckler’s last gasp before the line. Unfortunately for Millar, the chase did its math correctly and caught the Garmin veteran with a bit less than 2km to go.

This was the second bout of misfortune for Garmin, since what would have been a terrific chance for Tyler Farrar was rendered moot by his crash with about 15km left in the stage. Farrar fell along with Heinrich Haussler and Mick Rogers; all three men lost over 10 minutes. For Rogers, the crash effectively put an end to his GC hopes; he now lies 159th overall, over 14 minutes back.

And finally, it wouldn’t be a relatively flat stage if we didn’t discuss Tom Boonen’s terrible luck. Hopefully for Tom, bad things do indeed happen in three’s, for this is the third time this week fate has killed his chances for a win. Maybe from here on out he’ll ride with a clean slate? There are still several chances left for him to get a stage as Belgian Champion.

All in all, it was an exciting day capped by a thrilling win for Thor Hushovd. Tomorrow, things really get interesting, with the race's first summit finish to Andorra’s Arcalis.

Come back later for a preview of tomorrow’s events.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 5 Wrap-up - Karma Police?

Congrats, to Tommy Voeckler for a terrific stage win today! Can you believe this was Voeckler’s first stage victory? It's often forgotten that his yellow jersey exploit from several years ago was done without actually having won a stage. Voeckler’s Tour tenacity has finally been rewarded.

Tom Boonen flatted at the wrong time, leaving him off the back just as the peloton split along the coast. In the end it didn’t matter, but you’ve got to wonder if Tom and his team will ever get it together. This is his second bout of dumb luck in only 5 stages. Could it be karma?

And what a shame it was to see Robert Gesink struggling off the back for so long following an apparent fall. It took a while, but Rabobank finally gave their young hope some help, but in the end he still finished several minutes down. But don’t be surprised if the time he lost today is enough to give him the leeway he needs to win a stage, especially in the mountains. Maybe karma will reward Robert for hanging tough today.

Hope you enjoyed the stage today. What insights would you like to share with the rest of us?

Leave your comments below.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Tour de France - Contenders and Pretenders, So Far...

Now that we’ve had our first "real" GC shake-up—since yesterday at least—we can take some time to begin sorting the Contenders from the Pretenders. For some pundits it might be a bit early write individuals off completely, but a quick peruse down the GC, reveals that some pretty significant gaps have come to exist.

First, the Contenders:

1. Astana’s Fearsome Foursome
All talk of controversies aside, Astana is clearly the class of the 2009 Tour de France. With 4 riders in the Top-5 on GC (separated by 31 seconds), their only weakness might be the sheer number of men with serious ambitions for the win. Armstrong, Contador, Kloden, and Leipheimer—none have shown any sign of frailty. This weekend’s Pyrenean stages will give us our first look at the hierarchy--maybe. Someone’s gotta crack at some point, right? They can’t just TTT all the way up Arcalis, can they? Can they?

2. Liquigas’ Young Guns
In a Tweet at the beginning of the stage, I tipped Liquigas as a dark horse for today's TTT. I wasn’t expecting them to win, but with their rouleurs and the TT skills of Kreuziger and Nibali, I knew they could turn-in a respectable time. And they did. 4th place behind three of the world’s strongest teams (and just ahead of another) is a terrific result! Kreuziger lies 15th overall at 1:31 and Nibali sits in 19th at 1:36 back. Now, these gaps are not insignificant, but they aren't insurmountable either. Stranger things have happened, and both of these men now find themselves in the perfect place to surprise the big name competition. For example, in the Versus coverage today, the team was barely mentioned. With strong teammates like Kuschynski, Pellizotti, Vandborg, and Willems, they have a team that can keep them near the front and out of trouble. I’m telling you, watch-out for Liquigas.

3. Andy Schleck
Saxo Bank rode a respectable race to finish 3rd on the day, barely keeping Cancellara in yellow. As a result, Andy Schleck still sits in a position to have a legitimate shot at cracking the race open. He’s in 20th right now, 1:41 down on Spartacus Armstrong. (Now there’s a name for my first-born, son!) Brother Frank is 2:17 down and could rally over the coming days, but it would be to his brother’s detriment. Saxo will need a full team effort to launch one of it’s men to the top of the GC. But they have just the team to do it. We’ll know more after the Pyrenees.

4. Someone from Columbia-HTC
Columbia is well-placed to contend throughout the rest of the race. The question remains, for who or for what? Tony Martin, Mick Rogers, and Kim Kirchen all can see the summit of Mt. GC. (Kirchen’s got the biggest deficit at 1:32.) They could work together to try and place one of these men up front, or they continue to gather stage wins. For this team, the Pyrenees will tell us almost as much about the rest of their Tour as they will for Astana. If one of these three men comes through within shooting distance of the top, then Columbia might be onto something. If not, they can go back to doing what they do best: winning stages.

5. Christian Vande Velde
I have to be honest, my gut says he’s a pretender, but I think he deserves the benefit of the doubt until he shows otherwise. He’s 12th, 1:16 back. The problem for CVV is the fact that his team has pretty much passed the high point of its race. Without a talented climber to usher him to the front when the road tilts upward, Vande Velde will use too much energy to have anything left to attack with. Or he could prove us me wrong and ride himself further up the classification. He does know the roads in Spain quite well—maybe riding around his home away from home will inspire him? We'll know more soon.

And now for the Pretenders:

1. Denis Menchov
Clearly Menchov learned bike control skills from Michael Rasmussen. We thought the final Giro TT was a fluke, but today we saw it’s a bad habit that will need to be remedied soon. Menchov’s 3:52 back and barring something incredible, has little if no hope for the win. Stages should be his goal—and maybe riding in support of Robert Gesink (3:36 back) as he learns his way through his first Tour.

2. Cadel Evans
I’m sorry to say it, but I’m officially ruling Cadel out of the picture for the overall win. He’s certainly capable of a momentous effort, but he’s not showing signs of being able to get it done. His team appears to be in disarray, and he seemed scared before the stage, almost pleading with his guys to have a good day. I can’t help but think he’s sitting in his room, wondering if his best days and chances are behind him. The other teams are simply too deep and too strong.

3. Carlos Sastre
If I wanted to take the easy way out, I’d create a “To Be Determined” category and put Sastre and Evans in it. But this is about taking a stand, and I’m just not comfortable considering Sastre a serious threat to repeat his win from last year. His team is a step below most of the other teams with GC contenders, and he’s not the type of rider to seize control all by himself. And 2:44 is a lot to overcome when many of the other talented climbers sit more than a minute ahead of you on GC. Sorry Carlos, last year was your year. This year’s one for stage wins and maybe a shot at the Vuelta?

4. Caisse d”Epargne
When Caisse d’Epargne came in with an early fast time, I was excited to see how they would fare over the next week. That said, looking down the standings I see no one on the team within shouting distance of making a mark on GC. Popular dark horse Luis Leon Sanchez lies way down in 53rd with Pippo Pozzato, 3:18 back. Oscar Pereiro is one of Caisse d'Epargne's best-placed men, but even he’s 3:03 down. Clearly this was a team putting more hope in Alejandro Valverde than we originally aniticpated. At this point, I’d shoot for stage wins, amigos.

That's it for today! What about you? Who are you ready to write-off? Who's your #1 Contender?

Share you thoughts with the rest of us! And come back soon!

Tour de France - Stage 4 - A New Controversy?

Credit a Tweet from Robbie McEwen with starting today's controversy theory:

"I'm sure @Lancearmstrong did that on purpose to leave Cancellara in the jersey. He sat up in last 50m."

Interesting thoughts, Robbie. Armstrong and Bruyneel did say they worked yesterday to help preserve Cancellara's yellow to avoid defending it themselves in the first week. Maybe they planned it to down to the tenth of a second?

Interesting that Robbie noticed Lance sitting-up in the last 50km. I was too busy noticing the monster pull that Contador put-in just before the line. Could Contador have been trying to put Armstrong in yellow?

Maybe we're reaching; maybe not. But it's interesting food for thought nonetheless.

Let the pot be stirred! Thanks for getting things started, Robbie!

Monday, July 6, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 4 TTT Start Times

Here are the Start Times for tomorrow's Stage 4 Team Time Trial:

14:30 (8:30am U.S. Eastern): Caisse d'Epargne

14:37 (8:37am U.S.): Team Katusha

14:44 (8:44am U.S.): Rabobank

14:51 (8:51am U.S.): Lampre

14:58 (8:58am U.S.): Bbox Bouygues Telecom

15:05 (9:05am U.S.): AG2R-La Mondiale

15:12 (9:12am U.S.): Skil-Shimano

15:19 (9:19am U.S.): Française des Jeux

15:26 (9:26am U.S.): Agritubel

15:33 (9:33am U.S.): Silence-Lotto

15:40 (9:40am U.S.): Quick Step

15:47 (9:47am U.S.): Cervélo Test Team

15:54 (9:54am U.S.): Team Milram

16:01 (10:01am U.S.): Liquigas

16:08 (10:08am U.S.): Euskaltel-Euskadi

16:15 (10:15am U.S.): Cofidis

16:22 (10:22am U.S.): Garmin-Slipstream

16:29 (10:29am U.S.): Team Saxo Bank

16:36 (10:36am U.S.): Team Columbia-HTC

16:43 (10:43am U.S.): Astana

Tour de France - Stage 3 Wrap-up

Let the conspiracy theories begin!

When the peloton split with about 30km left in Stage 3, Lance Armstrong made his statement: This team is mine.

With Haimar Zubeldia and Yaroslav Popovych working with Columbia to pull the 27-rider lead group further and further up the road, Lance could probably see the yellow jersey beckoning him following tomorrow’s Team Time Trial in Montpellier.

He finished the stage in 19th place, and ironically now sits 19 seconds ahead of his teammate—the team “leader”, according to DS Johan Bruyneel—Alberto Contador on GC. Yes, the Tour is a 3-week race; and yes, many things can happen from one day to the next. 19 seconds may seem like only a bit of time, but the statement speaks much louder than the standings.

Lance Armstrong will not concede leadership of his team—to anyone.

Tomorrow will certainly be interesting. How will the team react? How cohesive will they ride? Will Contador or someone else actually sprint against Lance to be the first rider over the line? If there’s a flat or mechanical, will the entire team wait?

Other questions remain to be answered, especially: who made the decision to work with Columbia? Lance? Johan? Maybe the post-race comments will make things clearer.

And speaking of Johan, he’s now fully enmeshed in the toughest Tour of his career—and it’s only the 3rd day. He’ll need to be at his best tonight if he hopes to keep this team together.

I’d love to be a fly on the massage table at the Astana hotel tonight.

Monday Musings - While the Tour Rides Along

While the break rides along in today’s Stage 3, here are some things for you to take a look at:

1. If you haven’t seen it yet, head to the new Red Kite Prayer. BKW’s Padraig has upped the ante with a site you need to bookmark and/or add to your RSS reader. Expect the same great content you enjoyed at BKW, plus product reviews, guest commentary, and some other surprises. Thanks, Padraig!

2. The other day I stumbled upon some photos from The Retro Ronde (link's in Flemish), a sportive ride organized by the RVV Museum in Oudenaarde. Not sure how I missed this one in the past, but it’s certainly been added to my “To Ride” list.

3. And speaking of the Ronde, here’s the newest installment of the Cervelo TestTeam's Beyond the Peloton documentary. Roubaix’s next. Great stuff!

4. If you happen to be in Austin, Texas this weekend, head over to Kealing Middle School at 6:30pm for a re-enactment of the final race scene from the cycling classic, Breaking Away. It's a Rapha event commemorating the film's 30th anniversary. After the race, you and your cutter friends can head to a shop owned by a famous Austin cyclist for an awards party and film viewing.

5. This past week The Service Course posted a two-part interview with one of the former DS's from the ill-fated Mercury-Viatel team of 2001. Given the drama that's been surrounding Astana lately, it provides a very candid inside view of one of the sport's more recent team collapses.

6. And finally, I need to give a great thank you to Chris from LockringNotIncluded for coming down for a ride and a cup of coffee last week. If you haven't been to his blog before, I think you'll quickly find it to be one of the most poetic you've ever visited. There's just something about his photography and text that cuts right to the core of why we ride. Give him a visit and share in his joy.

And now back to today's stage!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Tour de France - Stage 2 Wrap-up

Mark Renshaw deserves a large share of the credit for Cavendish's stage win. His teammates laid the groundwork with terrific placement coming into the red kite, but he literally rode Garmin's Tyler Farrar off of Cavendish’s wheel. Cavendish was lucky to hang-on himself! One can’t help but wonder if one day Renshaw will get a chance to take a win. With a few more days like Stage 2, it will be hard to deny him the opportunity.

That said, it was great to see Garmin's organization for the sprint. Farrar was perfectly placed for the win; he seemed to have a good complement of riders working on his behalf. Columbia was just too strong though.

Tom Boonen popped-in with a few km left to go, but was conspicuously absent from the final romp to the line. It seems like the time off has affected the cohesion of his lead-out, otherwise he might have been better placed to avoid a crash before the line. Could Stage 3 be his day?

Frank Schleck can’t be feeling too confident right now. He hit the deck again and then was almost hit by his team car while trying to get back to the group. While this doesn't bode well for Frank, it does perhaps play into Andy's favor by taking him one step closer to "undisputed leader" status within Saxo Bank. Andy rode a respectable TT and must be still be considered with the rest of the GC favorites.

And finally, did you notice that an Euskaltel rider was involved in just about every crash? They're beginning to remind us of Kelme.

Stage 3 is even flatter than Stage 2. Expect another long, hot day for the riders ending in a sprint. Will Cavendish add to his total? Will Boonen win one for Belgium? And what about Thor and HH from Cervelo?

Share your comments with the rest of us.

Tour de France - Stage 1 Haiku Wrap-up

Haiku reporting.
Small efforts can speak loudest.
Mirrors Stage 1 rides.

Dominating ride.
Could hold yellow for long time.
If team supports him.

Second is a win.
Team should be his for good now.
Trade dots for yellow?


Where he wants to be:
Lurking, but can still shadow.
Waiting for mountains.

Kreuziger and Nibali

Have they earned respect?
Maybe they're still dark horses?
Do not ignore them.


Contador beat him.
Kloden and Leipheimer too.
Is 4th worse than 10th?

No one’s afraid now.
Lackluster effort at best.
Shooting for stage wins?

Four in top twenty.
TTT is theirs to win.
But for Astana.

Stage 2
Bumpy ride today.
But will anyone get dropped?
Hushovd gets the stage.

Please share your comments.
Haikus would be fun to read,
But all thoughts welcome.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Tour de France Preview - 5 "Indefensible" Claims

Sorry Mark, it's not your year...

What would the Tour be without the surprising and unexpected?

Here are Pavé's 5 "Indefensible" Claims for this year's Tour:

1. This year’s Tour will be free of any doping controversy.

Okay, Thomas Dekker and the latest rumors of several more positives might have already debunked this claim, but we’re sticking to our guns: from the Prologue to Paris we’ll have a clean race.

Naive? Perhaps. But while we think the sport is still years away from teams not signing riders they suspect are doped, we have entered a phase (maybe?) where teams at least leave suspected dopes off their rosters for the sport’s biggest races. Teams just don't seem willing to take the risk of having a rider test positive at events on a world stage anymore. The UCI's Biological Passport makes it easier for them to make educated guesses, and this year could be the first where the results—or lack thereof—speak for themselves.

2. Mark Cavendish will win one individual stage and one stage only.

This year, Mark Cavendish won’t find it as easy as it was last year to win sprint stages. The reason?

Well, its initials are TB, it now wears a tri-color jersey, and it likes rocks…er…stones…um…cobbles.

Tom Boonen’s back, ladies and gentlemen, and he’s ready to show the world that he’s still one of the fastest men in the world—on a bike. But it’s too simple to say just one rider’s presence is enough to thwart Cavendish’s bid for sprint dominance. And it isn’t.

Last year, Cavendish came to the race with everyone thinking he would win a stage, but not certain as to how many. This year he arrives with the pressure of repeating and perhaps surpassing his indomitable performance.

The parcours also does him no favors. The mountains come a bit earlier than in years past, and Cavendish could struggle to make it over them while maintaining his sprint speed. He'll also miss the presence of Marcus Burghardt, one of his most trusted lead-out men.

Plus, there’s the chance factor. Crashes, mechanicals, and blown lead-outs all factor into even the best sprinters’ plans from time to time. Cavendish might not get away so easily this time around.

3. French riders or riders from French teams will win more stages than any other country, making it a banner year for the “home équipe”.

It’s become apparent that we could have used Mad Libs to preview the 5 French teams in this year’s Tour. Here’s what they have in common: few serious GC candidates; no top-tier field sprinters capable of seriously threatening Boonen, Cavendish, Hushovd, and the like; and no climbers able to stay with the GC favorites in the mountains on a consistent basis.

We wish no disrespect for these teams; it’s just the reality of the situation right now. But it does mean—as we’ve been saying all week—that these teams come to the Tour with rosters full of men eager to attack, animate, and make the race aggressive as possible—particularly on days when the GC teams would be more content to just ride doucement.

This year, riders like Roman Feillu, Vladimir Efimkin, Thomas Voeckler, David Moncoutié, Yauheni Hutarovich, and the like will launch themselves off the front of every stage, gunning for victory. The odds will be in their favor on several stages.

Thus, with so many talented opportunists and so much to gain, we predict a banner year for French riders and French teams. If the 2009 Tour goes down as one of the most exciting in history, it won't only be due to the over-abundance of GC favorites (those battles are always exciting, regardless of the year), it will be due to the efforts of men like these.

And we'll all be saying, merci!

4. Lance Armstrong Won’t Finish the Race.

This claim has more to do with luck and less to do with fitness. Throughout his 7 Tour de France wins, Lance’s ability to avoid mishaps has been surprisingly underrated. While it’s certainly not as important as his other race-winning attributes, it must warrant consideration.

However, this year, Lance’s string of good luck seems to be coming to an end. He’s crashed. He’s broken a collarbone. He almost fell afoul of the UCI/WADA on an out of competition drug-testing technicality. His team almost lost its sponsorship a month before the race and comes to the the Tour with two leaders. And now, there's rumors he might leave all together when the race ends.

One will never know just how much this weigh’s on Lance; he’s a master at keeping his emotions veiled. But it can certainly be specualted--maybe even assumed--that this has not been the ideal build-up for the 37-year old's comeback bid.

The constellations don’t appear to be aligning in the way they used to for Big Tex. Sometime during the second week, he’ll make his exit. Then he’ll announce the creation of his new Bruyneel-led team and tell Vino to go BLEEP-himself.

And a whole new era begins.

5. Roman Kreuzinger will win the 2009 Tour de France.

A year too soon? Perhaps.

Too many other favorites? Maybe.

But while those are two compelling arguments against the claim, the list ends there. Kreuzinger’s won some pretty big races against some top competition in his young career. He’s finished well in the Tour and comes to the race this year with a better idea of what to expect. He also has a solid team behind him of capable riders able to support him in the race’s difficult moments.

But the biggest thing going for him might just be the two things working against him. The fact that no one seems to consider him a serious contender for the win—this year—could enable him to pull a surprise. Maybe he has a stellar Prologue, losing only seconds to the bigger GC favorites. Maybe he rides away from the lead group and gains some time in the Pyrenees because the “bigger” favorites are too busy looking at one another’s poker faces. Maybe he attacks and takes yellow in the Alps, defends it in the ITT, and then lets it all hang-out on Ventoux to take the jersey to Paris.

Stranger things have happened.

No matter what happens though, this year's race is a sure bet to be one of the most exciting in years. We hope you'll come back often for reports, opinions (no matter how outrageous), and more.

And please, share your thoughts with the rest of us below.

And for 5 more bold predictions, check-out our friends at Euro Peloton.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Tour de France Preview - Les Équipes du Tour - Part Quatre

Here's the fourth and final installment in Pavé's "Les Équipes du Tour" Preview. If you missed them, you can read Part Une here, Part Deux here, and Part Trois here.

Keep coming back for more coverage, predictions, and reactions to events as they unfold at le Grand Boucle. We promise daily coverage of all that happens.

Tomorrow, we'll be making 5 Indefensible Claims about this year's race--be sure to check it out!

Now back to the Preview:

Saxo Bank
It would be a serious mistake not to consider Andy Schleck a top favorite for this year’s Tour de France. Thanks to Carlos Sastre’s departure and his brother Frank's injury in the Amstel Gold Race, Andy should go into this year’s Tour with the full team at his disposal. Whether he will or not remains a big question as the Tour begins.

Saxo takes the start in Monaco with one of the most well-rounded teams in the race. Lacking only a field sprinter, the team is built for controlling things for whomever it deems its GC leader. Fabian Cancellara, Jens Voigt, Stuart O’Grady, and Kurt-Asle Arvesen are rouleurs who will help Saxo finish near the top of TTT and control things on flatter roads. And speaking of Spartacus, he’s showed tremendous form as of late, winning the Tour de Suisse and the Swiss National Championship--in the road race. Clearly anything but yellow in the Prologue will be a disappointment for Cancellara, and the team will quickly need to decide how long it wishes to defend his maillot jaune. The other three will also have their chances for breakaway stage wins once the GC scene gets a bit more settled; they’ve all had Tour stage success in the past.

The best thing about Saxo’s rouleurs is their ability to set the pace in the mountains. It's not strange to see riders like Cancellara and Voigt riding men off the back of the GC group when things get steep. And if they can’t, Saxo has talent like Gustav Larsson, Chris Anker Sørensen and Nicki Sørensen to help in the mountains. Anker Sørensen’s riding his first Tour, and is a rider to watch for the future.

The wild card is Frank Schleck. His status needs to be assessed quickly so as not to compromise the team’s chances for GC success. If he’s injured, he should be used as a decoy early, attacking when he can to tire the legs of other teams. If healthy and his brother can play off one another in the Alps to try and crack the competition (and hopefully not each other).

All in all, it should be another banner year for Bjarne Rijs and his team. With a talented roster, stage wins should be plentiful. But for the GC it will all come down to the two men with the same last name—and no, we don’t mean the Sørensen’s.

Cadel Evans comes to the Tour a bit more relaxed this year as at least some of the weight of being "Top Favorite" has passed from him to other riders. For Evans, a rider with a penchant for cracking under pressure, this is a very good thing. At least in the early stages, Cadel and his team should ride free of the burden of controlling race, content to sit back and let others set the pace when things matter most. Evans is not as talented as Contador, Armstrong, and maybe even Andy Schleck; he’ll need to be consistent and look to capitalize on his competitors' bad moments--if they have them. That said, he can win this race. Some good TT’s and a well-timed attack or two could put him in yellow. Then the pressure's on to keep it.

More importantly, this year Evans seems to have a team behind him more committed than ever to getting him to Paris on the top step of the podium. Gone are the days of splitting the team between Evans’ GC hopes and Robbie McEwen’s stage and Green Jersey aspirations. Yes, Greg Van Avermaet is there, but he’s a rouleur able to help the team when asked, while still mixing it up for a stage here and there (but not enough to warrant a full complement of riders to form a lead-out train).

Thomas Dekker was planning to take the line hoping to prove the glimpses of talent he’s showed in the past weren’t anomalies. He could have been Evans’ greatest ally when the race hit the mountains. Alas, he’s been left-off the squad (and now fired) following a 2007 positive test for a form of EPO. He’s been replaced by Charly Wegelius, an adequate and less temperamental substitute. Wegelius and Matthew Lloyd will be two of Evans' most important assistants in the mountains. And let’s not forget Belgian Super Domestiques Johan Vansummeren and Jurgen Van den Broeck, two riders capable of setting searing paces on the flats and ascents respectively.

In the end though, it will all come down to Evans. If he can exploit the other teams’ weaknesses, particularly the potential rivalries within some of those teams (Astana in particular), he can certainly take home his first win. And if he does, he will have accomplished it when all the greatest riders of his generation were present. That’s quite an achievement.

In many ways, Skil-Shimano is like a French team. The Dutch Wild Card team comes to its first Tour with a diverse roster of men hoping to gain exposure and stage wins. Frenchmen Jonathan Hivert and Cyril Lemoine will try for victory on their home turf, while Fumiyuki Beppu seeks to become the first rider from Japan to win a Tour stage. That said, the team's biggest chance for success comes from Kenny Van Hummel. Van Hummel won the Four Days of Dunkirk this year and finished 2nd in last week’s Dutch Championship. It won’t be a surprise if he leaves France with a stage or two and possibly a fat new contract to ride for a Pro Tour team in 2010.

BBox Bouygues Telecom
We would have previewed BBox’s Tour team on Monday, but its roster wasn’t finalized at the time. Like many of its compatriots, BBox comes to the Tour seeking stage glory. Thomas Voeckler still remembers the year he took yellow in the first week and fought savagely to keep the jersey longer than anyone expected. He’s always capable of a similar exploit.

Pierrick Fedrigo won this year’s Dauphiné stage into Briançon. He’s a rider capable of winning from a mountain breakaway, and could be one to watch on Ventoux if a break is given some latitude by the rest of the GC contenders. Laurent Lefèvre and Yuri Trofimov are riders with similar tendencies, while the youthful Pierre Roland has been tipped as the next French climbing sensation. Finally, it should be noted that BBox is one of 2 teams with a Japanese rider as Yukiya Arashiro joins Skil-Shimano’s Fumiyuki Beppu in his attempt to become the first Tour stage winner from Japan.

Caisse d’Epargne
Like BBox, Caisse d’Epargne’s roster wasn’t finished when we went to post, so we’re covering them now.

Caisse d’Epargne comes to the Tour for the first time in recent memory without Alejandro Valverde. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Not to be harsh, but Valverde has failed to show an ability to succeed in the pressure-cooker of the Tour. He’s much more suited to the hillier classics, shorter stage races, and the Vuelta.

Without him, Caisse d’Epargne will rely on Luis León Sanchez for its GC aspirations; the team might be very pleasantly surprised. León Sanchez has been winning major races for a while now and has only been prevented from full-blown stardom by having to ride for Valverde. Now he has the team fully at his own disposal and could make them forget about Valverde’s absence. He can climb, he can time trial, and he possesses a killer instinct that could see him put a bit of fear in the eyes of the bigger favorites. A Top-10 is a distinct possibility; a Top-5 woul be a surprise to some, but not for us.

León Sanchez has a talented roster of riders behind him including David Arroyo and Ivan Gutiérrez. More importantly, he has the experienced Oscar Pereiro to guide him through the tricky business of leading a team in the biggest race in the world. Overall, it could be a pleasantly surprising July for Caisse d’Epargne—unless your initials are “AV”.

That's it for the first annual Pavé Team-by-Team preview of this year's Tour contenders.

Who did we miss? Where did we over- or under-hype?

Share your comments with the rest of us--and come back tomorrow for more!