Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Tour Hits The Home Stretch

It would seem that the Tour de France is basically a race for third place at this point. Alberto Cantador has basically sewn up his second overall win in three years, and Andy Schleck has basically claimed 2nd (as well as the white best-young-rider jersey). Thor Hushovd ended the chase for the green sprinters/points jersey. Franco Pellizotti has ended the climb for the polka dot king of the mountains jersey. And Astana has pretty much but the team time race to bed as well. And I am running away with my fantasy group on But any of five men could potentially fill that third place spot on the podium in Paris on Sunday.

Or is it all that cut and dry? As we have seen, the most innocent looking crashes can occur on the easiest of stages, and can knock major contenders out in an instant (Levi Leipheimer). Not to mention that there are serious dangers on these roads that can lead to horrific crashes that could shake up the standings (Jens Voigt - pictured). But aside from a crash ruining the fun in these last four stages, how safe are the jersey-wearers?

It appears that Cantador is a lock to win it all. He widened his overall gap to 2:26 on Wednesday and has shown that he has the legs (if not the strategic expertise or teamsmanship) to out do any man on the climbs. And while he isn't the absolute best time trialist and may lose a little time to a few men on Thursday, he is excellent in that discipline and has provided himself with a massive cushion regardless. Put it in the bank: Cantador wins.

Andy Schleck finds himself in 2nd overall and should not have any trouble hanging onto that position. His closest rival is his brother/teammate Frank (:59 behind him) so there is no cause for concern there. Behind Frank is Lance Armstrong who has shown that he does have the power to plow through these climbs, but keeps being left out on quick accelerations...which Andy Schleck does well if need be on Saturday on Mont Ventoux. Plus, he has 1:19 on Armstrong and 2:18 on Andreas Kloden (5th), and 2:27 on time trial threat Bradley Wiggins (6th).

Frank Schleck in third won't attack his own brother (more because he's a teammate than a brother probably) to try to move up into 2nd, but his hold on third in Paris is only tenuous. He has shown great strength and has ridden beautifully through the first 2+ weeks, but he holds just :30 on Lance Armstrong and that is not a strong position with a time trial and brutal mountain stage remaining. Kloden is 1:19 back and Wiggins is 1:28, and both of them are threats to move up as well. By comparison, in the stage 1 time trial in Monaco, Wiggins beat Frank Schleck by 1:19, and that course was not as well-suited to Wiggins' style as the one on Thursday is. The race for third could easily be divided by 10-15 seconds among five men as they take on Mont Ventoux on the last real stage of the Tour.

Thor Hushovd rode an inspired race in stage 17, both tactically and physically. With his small lead in the green jersey competition in peril with two potential field sprints remaining, and Mark Cavendish having shown that he cannot be beaten in such a competition, Hushovd simply took the sprints out of the equation by surging ahead on a Cat 1 climb and descent, catching and passing a breakaway full of pure climbers. He put up to 2:00 between himself and the nearest man, taking wins at both of stage 17's sprint checkpoints and even winning a climb during his solo breakaway (before sitting up and actually taking a Coke from his team car as he waited for the field to catch him, his job done).

Pellizotti likely ended the king of the mountains chase in stage 16 when he got into yet another breakaway (a daily occurrence for Pellizotti) and took maximum points over both of the day's climbs. Astana took over the team time lead in stage 15 before doubling their lead to just over two-and-a-half minutes in stage 16. They then added nearly 14 minutes to the lead in stage 17, no thanks to Cantador's inexplicable attack on the final climb that pre-empted a move planned for Kloden. Vincenzo Nibali has kept the race for the best young rider competition respectable (2:43 behind Schleck through stage 17), but he hasn't shown that he can keep up with Schleck, let alone take that much time away from him over these last few stages.

Looking ahead, Fabian Cancellara is a big favorite to win the time trial on Thursday, just as he did in stage 1 in Monaco. Cancellara is over an hour-and-a-half behind the leaders though and is of no concern. All eyes will be on Wiggins (6th overall) who was third in stage 1, losing 1 second to Cantador but beating each of his other rivals for the podium in Paris by as much as 80 seconds.

Stage 19 looks like a possible bunch sprint where the leaders will not bother to attack one another at all (just one Cat. 2 climb and two Cat. 4's.) and will rest on their time gains from the time trial. That sets up a potential classic on Saturday's penultimate stage with four moderate climbs culminating in the Highest Category climb to an uphill finish on Mont Ventoux. No lead is really safe on this climb as an agressive rider who is able to break away from the pack of leaders could easily take 2-3 minutes out of the group on that climb alone. And stage 21 will likely be Cantador's coronation through the streets of Paris as Cavendish bolts one last time for a stage win.

1. Alberto Cantador
2. Andy Schleck +2:26
3. Frank Schleck +3:25
4. Lance Armstrong +3:55
5. Andreas Kloden +4:44
6. Bradley Wiggins +4:53
7. Vincenzo Nibali +5:09

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