Monday, July 6, 2009

Lance Is Poised To Take Over Tour Lead

The first two stages of the Tour de France seemed to go just according to plan for most teams. Astana had four men in the top 10 overall, with Alberto Cantador planted firmly as their leader. Fabian Cancellara had out-descended the field on the roads back down into Monaco and taken hold of the yellow jersey after the stage 1 individual time trial. Columbia had set up their slingshot and fired Mark Cavendish to the stage win in a bunch sprint in stage 2. All of the major players (Cantador, Lance Armstrong, Levi Leipheimer, Denis Menchov, Carlos Sastre, Cadel Evans, Andy Schleck, etc.) were among the elite on the overall list, and none had suffered any setbacks in the crashes on the first day on the open roads. Stage 1 saw the time trialists shine. Stage 2 saw the sprinters gets their shots. No surprises.

It was so predictable that Astana's team manager Johan Bruyneel basically decided before the race in what position his big four would finish overall. Armstrong took the course before the others and claimed the top overall time. Next came Leipheimer who bettered him by a few seconds and took over the overall lead. Next was Andreas Kloden who did the same. And finally Cantador took his place at the top of the Astana ladder, in second place overall - close enough to strike, but without having the wear a yellow target on his back for the next 20 races.

Stage 3 looked like it would work out according to plan as well - another long, flat, hot stage in the south of France where the sprinters would fight it out in the end, but no time would be gained or lost by the leaders. The flat stretch that finished the stage would keep the pace fast but comfortable, and the relatively straight run in to the finish would keep everyone upright. We'd have to wait for Tuesday's team time trial and the mountain stages to come for any shake-ups among the leaders.

Team Columbia began setting up their catch of the four breakaway riders by trading off who would push the pace at the front, protecting Mark Cavendish who would be led in to the final kilometer to bolt out for the stage win. It was all so ordinary.

Then the wind kicked up.

In the blink of an eye, Columbia's pace setting suddenly broke the peloton into pieces as they fought a cross-wind. But certainly the major contenders would either notice the break and get into it, or realize it was not a threat and let it go. Certainly Astana or Saxo Bank would not let any contenders sneak away. Certainly Quick Step or Garmin would not let Columbia's Cavendish get too easy of a sprint win. Right?

Within moments, the entire 9-man Columbia team, including Cavendish and overall contenders Tony Martin, Kim Kirchen and Michael Rogers, had broken the race open. Lance Armstrong was the only serious contender not on Columbia to make it into the break (along with two teammates). Saxo Bank couldn't lead the charge to reel them in because even though their man Andy Schleck was left out, Cancellara had made the break and they didn't want to attack their own teammate. Neither could Astana, choosing to let Armstrong get time back on many of his rivals, but possibly creating more problems down the line as Armstrong pulled himself ahead of team leader Cantador by the end.

One predictable thing eventually happened: Cavendish out-sprinted the field for the win (the sprinters had been thinned down to really just him and Thor Hushovd). The top two overall spots remained in Cancellara's and Martin's grasps, but Armstrong had leap-frogged six men up to 3rd place, Cantador now 19 second behind him. Linus Gerdemann and Maxime Montfort jumped into 7th and 9th, respectively, and Levi Leipheimer dropped to 10th, now 1:11 back of the lead.

Thus far the race is being dominated by Germans (2nd, 6th, 7th) and Americans (3rd, 10th, 13th, 17th), with Astana still leading the team-time competition (also in 3rd, 4th, 6th and 10th overall) and Columbia close on their heels (1:46 back with men in 2nd, 9th, 11th, and 13th). Cancellara still leads overall over Martin (:33) and Armstrong (:40). Martin leads the best young rider classification, and Cavendish appears to be running away with the points classification.

Tuesday is the team time trial, and as I wrote last week, afterwards the yellow jersey will likely be worn by a major contender. Columbia needs to gain 33 seconds on Saxo Bank to put Martin in yellow. Astana needs to gain 40 seconds on Saxo Bank and just 7 seconds on Columbia for Armstrong to be back in yellow once again, which will certainly ramp up the controversy about who that team is supporting (though we only seem to see or hear that controversy in the media, not among the riders themselves).

Silence Lotto could see Evans take over the lead if there is a major shake-up, but Astana and Armstrong are by far the most likely to take over if Saxo Bank and Cancellara are going to drop from the top spot.

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