Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Contenders

OK, I've got to talk some bike racing. The Tour de France is the big prize, but many aficionados believe the best racing is in the spring, when the hard men  rule and the Grand Tour contenders hone their act for the big show.The European spring racing season is in full swing, with Paris-Nice ending Sunday with a victory by Alberto Contador, who also won the Volta ao Algarve. He's started two stage races this year and has won them both convincingly.  Cadel Evans raced Tirreno -Adriatico this week, where he is finished a respectable third. Frank Schleck also raced Paris-Nice, but wasn't too visible, brother Andy delayed the start of his season after a knee injury, and Lance Armstrong finished 7th in the Tour of Murcia and has now decided to race Milan-SanRemo this weekend. Levi Leipheimer dropped out of contention early at Paris-Nice. A lot can be said about where the various top riders intend to be at this point in the season but so far Contador is showing the best form of anyone in the pro peloton. He's made few mistakes and his Astana team has been adequate. Mistakes will likely prove more costly in the heart of the season and "adequate" may prove to be "less than" in the Tour, but Contador has comfortably gone two for two in a couple of big stage races so he is confident to the point of easing back on his schedule. On the other hand, Lance Armstrong just added the brutal Milan-SanRemo to his already heavy schedule, indicating that he is not where he needs to be. At Murcia, Armstrong focused on the time trial and had a mediocre performance. The alarm bells have got to be ringing.
Milan-SanRemo was won in a dramatic fashion last year by Mark Cavendish, establishing his credentials as a classics rider. He's not in top form this year, having had a long recovery from oral surgery, and Lance will want to prove, at least to himself, that he's got some chops. Armstrong is unlikely to win, but he needs to ride well, if for no other reason to prove to himself that can compete.
Armstrong and Contador will meet in the Criterium International on March 27 and 28th. It will be an interesting opportunity to see who has what and/or what they are willing to show. Contador will go to the race to win. Lance is likely to keep his intent close to the vest, then rationalize any perceived weakness as the result of his still riding into form. A few years ago, that was taken as fact, as we knew that come July, Lance was going to bring it to the Tour de France. Right now, it looks like Contador has the edge, Evans and Schleck are next tier and I really don't know where Lance fits in the order of Tour contenders. I'm sure he still has the competitive fire and I hope he still has the wheels.


Chris said...

1) Contador - I'd say his performance at P-N was godo but not quite "convincing". Sanchez, Valverde, and an almost-invisible-but-still-darn-good Kreuziger stayed very close.

2) Evans - He's wisely claiming to be focused on the Giro this year. I think his best chance at the TdF was in 2008 when he actually finished with the best time but lost on bonuses to Contador.

3) A. Schleck - If that kid can ever learn to ride a TT, he'll take it to Contador.

4) Lance - Probably reduced to a sideshow at this point. I dout he'll ever take the top step in Paris again, though if he podiums for another 2 years, he'll take Poulidor's record as the oldest TdF podium finisher.

Chris said...

*godo = good
*dout = doubt


JBar said...

Good points, but....
In watching the critical stages of P-N, Contador was isolated and repeatedly attacked but never threatened. Valverde was in the best position as far as having teammates in position, but Contador kept the heat on by repeatedly launching his own attacks. Typically impetuous, but it said, "I ain't scared."

I don't think Evans has the toughness stay with the best climbers for three weeks.

Schleck can go with Contador most of the time, but don't think he can drop him on a climb. Contador's seering style of attack allows him to gap almost anyone almost any time. I agree with the TT needs, but I think it just gets him close, though the team riding of Saxo-Bank weighs in his favor.

Lance. I would just never write the tough SOB off. Team and tactics give him a chance even with 38 year-old legs.

Contador's weaknesses may be the team and his lack of discipline. He was sometimes isolated in P-N and a three week grand tour requires a team that can be there every day, even for Alberto. Sometimes he attacks just because he can. He might pay a price for that. He is the srongest rider, but all it takes is one bad day to be out of contention.

This is fun to talk about and all the more reason to pay close attention to the lead up. Spring racing will be as good as it's been in recent years.