Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Tour de France Preview: Expect Surprises in 2010

June 30, 2010
Photo: Benepe(c) Martigny, the scene of the Verbier "pass"--Contador pedaling away from Armstrong.

The Tour de France will be starting on Saturday, July 3, with full daily coverage here on Benepe's Bike Blog. We will also be launching a new site Cyclists International: watch for our announcement on BBB.

There will also be daily video coverage on Versus (lifesaver!) through your cable service, but even if you do not have access, you'll be able to view the day's races on their site for under $30.00.

A lot will be brewing during this Tour and we predict there will be some surprises, not just in the realm of competition and in the daily post-race dope testing, but also in the continuing developments of doping investigations.

For one, Floyd Landis's allegations of doping have now inculpated major riders, sports directors and other team members who will be competing at the Tour, among them Lance Armstrong, team manager Johan Bruyneel, and his agent Bill Stapleton, and bike champions George Hincapie and Levi Leipheimer.

Ongoing investigations by the UCI and other control organizations could reveal more findings that could affect these players at any point in time over the course of the Tour's 20 stages.

Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour de France title when his final tests came up positive for testosterone, a drug that enhances muscle strength. Landis also came out publicly in May saying that he doped in the past while he was riding for the US Postal Service team--while also implicating his fellow riders.

Though investigators such as David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, told the New York Times that he does not think the investigation will affect the Tour outcome, already other agencies are involved that could tip that balance: United States Food and Drug Administration investigator Jeff Notvitsky who was in charge of the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative steroids case will be pursuing any leads that implicate Armstrong et al in fraud while the Tour is on.

Any major revelations would undoubtedly disrupt the Tour and possibly change the balance of competition. My prediction is if this happens, it will be someone and some development we least expect.

Armstrong at presser after Stage 17, 2009 TDF (Benepe, (c)) 
The New York Times even went so far as to imply that the Amaury Sports Organization (ASO) which controls both the Tour de France and the Vuelta de Espana, have not invited Lance Armstrong's team RadioShack to the Vuelta because of the ongoing investigation and the possibility that any findings at any time could disrupt the biggest Spanish bike race.

We don't buy that argument: We think it's simply because Alberto Contador, who went face to face with his own teammate Lance Armstrong in the 2009 TDF, is from Spain, and is most definitely the golden boy of the country. Since they now no longer share the same team Astana of last year, and Contador developed real animosity towards Armstrong during the 2009 TDF, there is no reason to embarrass the golden boy and indeed subject him to a possible personal humiliation on his own turf.

Could Contador, or even his team sponsor, Astana, have threatened to withdraw from the Vuelta if RadioShack was invited?

We can't confirm that, and no one would likely admit it, but you can be sure that a rider of Contador's pedigree would get what he wants in his home country.

Drug control, 2009 TDF (Benepe (c))

But this we are sure of: when we covered the TDF 2009 and traveled with a Spanish reporter, there was no doubt in his mind who was the best cyclist in the world. All of his reporting centered around Contador, as if Armstrong and the other riders did not exist.

And his reporting was if anything subjective: Contador could do no wrong, not even when he disobeyed the orders of his Directeur Sportif at Verbier, when he powered away from Armstrong to win the stage. Now we have to admit it was a bold move, and it's the kind of thing any young athlete might do when confronted with a star rider that they think they are superior to, but that doesn't mean it was correct.

Benepe(c) Andy Schleck and his mother Gabby at Bourg Saint Maurice, 2009.

So where does that leave the two giants prior to the start of the TDF, the biggest and most exciting bike race in the world? Armstrong has made a number of statements disclaiming his ability to beat Contador or even the brothers Frank and Andy Schleck in this year's Tour.

Which means most of the action will be between Contador and the Schleck brothers, with Mark Cavendish and Thor Hushovd battling it out on the flats. Hopefully none of those riders will be pulled into the developing doping scandal, or become new drug control positives as the race progresses.

If no new developments surface during the Tour (but we predict something will), Armstrong still has a strong chance of making it to the podium in Paris. His second place finish at the Tour of Switzerland,  which did not include rivals Contador, Ivan Basso, or Cadel Evans, but did include winner Andy Schleck, showed that he is using the TOS to bolster his fitness for the big event of the year.

This has been Armstrong's modus operandi in the past: practice up in the smaller races in order to be in form to dominate in the one that really counts. 

But in his characteristic way, Armstrong is not predicting a major win. In an interview with Eurosport this month Armstrong said “It will be very difficult because of my age, 38 years, the explosiveness of other guys, my difficulties in shining in the time trials in the past couple of years... To summarize, I would say that there are guys who are bigger favorites than me.”

As for the other competitors, on the flats you can expect Hushovd and Cavendish to be battling it out: no doubt Cavendish is still smarting from the foul call by Hushovd that cost him the Green Jersey for that stage and the Tour. Incidentally Cavendish's new book, "Boy Racer, My Journey to Tour de France Record Breaker", published by VeloPress, which we will review shortly, makes it clear how hard, and how passionately he wants that Green Jersey. So WATCH OUT this year for the speed demon Cav'.

No comments: