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?
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