I don’t pretend to have near the insight in professional bike racing as Phil, Paul, and Bobke, but I can’t help making a few observations as the 2008 Tour de France enters its first rest day. In the tradition of Velo News’ “What’s HOT, what’s NOT”, I offer the following, admittedly incomplete, summary of some of the more significant revelations from this year’s TdF:
– Christian Vandevelde. Nobody had this guy on their overall contender’s short list, but after toiling for years in the service of others Christian has looked like more of a bonafide contender than many of the bonafide contenders. Consistent high finishes, brimming with confidence, upbeat interviews, and a reasonably strong team have me thinking he’s got a real shot at the podium. I admit it – despite inching up into 3rd overall after the first week (and me wanting like heck to see him succeed), I really thought the HC climb to Hautacam on Stage 10 would be the finish of his GC dreams, but he looked as comfortable and confident as any of the other remaining podium hopefuls. His TT skills certainly exceed those of Carlos Sastre – almost on par with Cadel Evans and Dennis Menchov – so his GC chances now have to look pretty good. GO CHRISTIAN!
– Jens Voigt. Is this guy an animal or what!? A great bike racer in his own right, his unrelenting pace up the Tourmelet on Stage 10 was a study in selfless service to the team. He’s one of the older and heavier riders in the peleton, yet he managed to drop Stage 1 winner and top GC contender Alejandro Valverde, effectively ending the latter’s GC chances less than halfway through the race. Damiano Cunego also saw his outside GC chances clobbered by this ‘beast of a man’ (with all due respect to Paul Sherwin).
– Mark Cavandish. This guy is for real, we’ll be watching him dominate sprint stages in the Grand Tours for years in the same way the likes of Zabel and Super Mario dominated their eras. Despite his reputation as a bit of a hothead, he’s come across in the interviews I’ve seen as a quite affable fellow – I really like this guy’s explosivness when the line draws near!
– Riccardo Ricco. Two stage wins already after winning two in the Giro d’Italia, and only 23 years of age. His uphill attack on Stage 9 had me shaking my head in disbelief (and probably many of the cyclists in his group as well). The parallels with Marco Pantani are obvious – let’s just hope things end better for him. 07/17/08 edit: What an idiot!
– TdF rule changes. Collectively, the rule changes implemented for this year’s TdF have created an exciting, unpredictable, aggressive race. Dumping the prologue to create a pecking order of GC hopefuls in favor of a true road stage with an uphill finish allowed everyone to get involved – GC contenders, sprinters, and climbers alike. Additional uphill finishes and no truly pancake flat stages during the first week created aggressive racing in place of the usual week 1 scenario of caught breakaways and well executed leadout trains (not that those aren’t exciting – just not everyday). Eliminating time bonuses has also increased the aggression and changed race tactics (Frank Schleck would be in yellow right now if the time bonuses were still in place). A short, early individual TT allowed some sorting, but the good TTers weren’t able to gain huge time gaps. Finally, as much as I love the beauty of the team TT, it really does give an unfair advantage to contenders with strong teams.
– Craig Hummer. Articulate, handsome, and seems to have a much better rapport with the boys than did Al Trautwig. He’s engaging and pleasant, and he’s made some damned good picks in the commentator yellow jersey competition.
– Alejandro Valverde. Second only to Cadel Evans on everybody’s contender short list, he seemed to be ready for the challenge after winning the Dauphine and immediately taking Stage 1 in convincing fashion. It’s a 3-week race, though, and he has yet to show the consistency required to win the overall. The bad TT wasn’t fatal, because the time lost in such a short TT could easily be made up in the mountains. But to get dropped on the first HC climb of the Tour? By Jens “Diesel Engine” Voight? It appears he’s pulled an “Iban Mayo”.
– Damiano Cunego. Granted he was a long-shot for winning the Tour, or even making the podium. But like Valverde, Damiano is a climber of some repute and still got dropped on the very first HC climb of the Tour. He’s had a rough road since coming down with mono after the promise of his Giro win. I’d like to see him turn it around, as he seems quite likable.
– Stefan Schumacher. I’ve had a hard time liking this guy ever since he crashed out George Hincapie in the 2006 Eneco to secure the stage race win, primarily due to his anything but contrite comments afterwards. How ironically amusing is it that he should lose the yellow jersey after touching wheels with Kim Kirchen – the very person who would regain the jersey as a result. Once again, his comments afterwards would place the blame everywhere except where it belongs (and where the yellow jersey doesn’t) – on his shoulders. An lackluster Stage 10 performance has quickly relegated him to footnote status for the rest of the Tour.
– Manuel Beltran and Moises Duenas Nevado. What idiots!