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Tour de France 2006 Preview

Predicting the Tour de France has been pretty boring over the past few years. This year, however, without a certain Texan, the field is wide open. A look at the contenders:Jan Ullrich (T-Mobile) – The only former winner in the field, he has long been Lance Armstrong’s personal whipping boy. Supposedly the most naturally-gifted rider in the peloton, Ullrich usually comes into the Tour with a few extra schnitzels around the waist and generally performs under expectations. This year, Ullrich again started the season in poor form, but rode the Giro d’Italia as training and did very well in the time trial and the mountain stages toward the end of the race, and most recently won the Tour de Suisse. With two long time trials in the Tour this year, Jan is the favorite, although his team is a bit short of CSC and needs Andreas Kloden to return to form.

Ivan Basso (CSC) – Basso obliterated the field at the Giro this year, seemingly without breaking a sweat. CSC also looks to be the strongest team these days, with Carlos Sastre serving as Basso’s right-hand man in Italy and destroying Basso’s rivals on the climbs. The lack of a team time trial this year will take away one of Basso’s edges over Ullrich, but he should still be stronger than him in the mountains. If form holds, the Tour will be decided by comparing Ullrich’s edge in the time trials and Basso’s edge in the mountains. The effort expended by Basso and CSC in Italy will be an issue, as the Giro-Tour double is rare.

Floyd Landis (Phonak) – The early season form that carried Landis to wins at the Tour of California, Paris-Nice, and the Tour of Georgia elevated Landis to Tour sleeper pick and the cover of Outside Magazine. But his recent result at the Dauphine Libere (57 minutes behind the leader) has many people wondering if he peaked too soon this year. Landis worked for Armstrong at US Postal and presumably learned many of his psychological tricks – Landis was probably lying low at the Dauphine to get in some solid training and take the pressure off his Phonak team. Landis’ strange time trial position (his forearms angled up, instead of parallel to the ground, yield the Praying Landis moniker) belies his strength in the discipline, and his early season results showed new pop in his climbing.

Levi Leipheimer (Gerolsteiner) – Leipheimer’s profile is similar to Landis’ – strong in time trials, competent in the mountains. With his recent victory at the Dauphine, and last year’s win at the Tour of Germany, Leipheimer has shown that he, too, has been working on the explosive climbing abilities that are required to put time into one’s rivals during mountain stages. Is going all out for a victory in a Tour warm-up prudent, or did Landis take the right approach at the Dauphine? Leipheimer’s Gerolsteiner co-leader from last year, Georg Totchnig, is working for him this year, so Leipheimer should push into the top five.

Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne) – The future of Spanish cycling showed last year that he could ride with the best in the Tour’s mountain stages. However, he’s still relatively weak in the time trial and ended up dropping out of the Tour last year. Always a threat for stage wins due to his finishing sprint, Valverde is still a year away from seriously contending. His improvement in the time trial will determine his ceiling at the Tour.

George Hincapie, Jose Azevedo, Yaroslav Popovych, Paolo Salvodelli (Discovery) – The team of Lance is hoping that one of this quartet will step forward as team leader for this year’s Tour, but all have weaknesses that will prevent a serious run for the team’s eighth consecutive Tour victory. Hincapie has improved on his time trial, but is still a notch below Ullrich and even Landis and Leipheimer, and he has not yet shown the ability to attack rivals in a tete a tete showdown in the mountains (his stage win last year came as part of a breakaway that the contenders let go because he was not a threat for the overall classification). Azevedo can climb, but will concede too much time in the time trials, while Salvodelli has the opposite problem. Popovych has shown flashes of potential, but his form this season has not shown the progression that was expected.

Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana Wurth) – Assuming that the Wurth team can overcome the doping scandal that scared away previous sponsor Liberty Seguros and keep their invite to the Tour, the distractions will still prove to be too much for Vinokourov. Always on the attack, Vino also lacks a solid team to support his bid for the podium.

Iban Mayo (Euskaltel), Jose Rujano (QuickStep), Gilberto Simoni (Saunier Duval) – These three climbers will fight for the stage win on L’Alpe d’Huez, but only because they will lose major chunks of time in the first time trial and be allowed to go up the road ahead of the main contenders.

Cadel Evans (Davitamon) – A strong time trialist, Evans should make it into the top ten. His climbing is decent, but he’ll be struggling to hang on during the toughest ascents.

Francisco Mancebo, Christophe Moreau (AG2R) – A strong showing by both riders at the Dauphine raised hopes that a French rider, or at least a French team, could seriously contend this year. While motivated, Moreau and AG2R lack the necessary firepower to be more than stage hunters. A best case scenario is a breakaway stage win and the yellow jersey for a few days before the big bullies come and steal it away, a la Thomas Voeckler two years ago.

Damiano Cunego (Lampre) – Ostensibly competing this year for experience, Cunego showed in this year’s Giro that he’s a few steps shy of Basso, even when targeting a specific race. 2004 may turn out to be his career year, rather than a launching point for anything bigger.

Denis Menchov (Rabobank) – Last year’s Vuelta winner after Roberto Heras was disqualified, Menchov will be left isolated by a team hunting for stage wins. That can work in Spain, but not in France.

While the time trialists get first crack at the yellow jersey with a short prologue and a longer time trial in week two, with nothing but flat stages in between, the race will ultimately be decided in the final week, with two mountain-top finishes and another long time trial in the penultimate stage. Prologue specialists like Dave Zabriskie (CSC) and David Millar (Saunier Duval) will grab the glory first, but the order of the contenders will be important after the prologue, since that will likely also determine the starting order for the first long time trial. Going last (or later than one’s rivals) gives one the advantage of knowing and playing off of their splits, so everyone should be going hard from Day 1. Since Ullrich is normally better in longer time trials, some contenders such as Hincapie and Evans may finish ahead of him in the prologue and start after him in the first time trial. For Landis and Leipheimer, this would be hugely important.

Assuming Ullrich is leading the contenders into the mountains, it will be up to Basso to take the race to Ullrich and the other time trialists ahead of him. Basso has greatly improved his own time trialing in the past year, so he will be much closer to Ullrich after the first time trial than Ullrich would like, and Basso’s mountain train of Julich, Voigt, VandeVelde and Sastre will bring the pain in the Pyrenees and, especially, the Alps. Although the Giro-Tour double is tough, Basso was cruising during the last week in Italy and is riding with supreme confidence. Basso will take a sizable lead over Ullrich, et al, in the mountains, and will have more than enough to hang on during the final time trial.

Predicted final standings:

  1. Basso
  2. Landis
  3. Ullrich
  4. Valverde
  5. Leipheimer
  6. Evans
  7. Mancebo
  8. Hincapie
  9. Sastre
  10. Menchov

3 replies on “Tour de France 2006 Preview”

i love articles like this and the recent hockey one where i have never heard of any of these names. hopefully they are all spelt right, it must be a pain in the ass to look them up.

huge drug mess WOW – Basso, Ullrich, Vinokourov, Mancebo are all out of the Tour as of today due to Operation Puerto, the drug scandal in Spain. This completely changes the complexion of the race in so many ways.

Americans should be happy, as Landis, Leipheimer and maybe Hincapie become podium favorites, although the early line in the UK has Valverde as the betting favorite.

Given the expertise and motivational techniques of Bjarne Riis, the dark horse candidate is now Carlos Sastre, who may ride his own race at the front of the still formidable CSC team. His time trial ability is still questionable, though. Perhaps Bobby Julich or Dave Zabriskie, two Americans who are extremely strong time trialists, will lead the way for CSC with Sastre remaining as the top lieutenant in the mountains.

After the prologue and first time trial, it could conceivably be six English speakers leading the pack: Zabriskie, Landis, Leipheimer, Evans, Julich, Hincapie.

A wide open Tour de France just go even more unpredictable. It should be fun to watch.

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