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Now back to the Preview:
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.
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!