Here we are, just hours away from the start of the 94th Tour de France. A few editions have been missed, due to those pesky World Wars, but the event itself is a tad over 100 years old with the first edition of the race being run in 1903 and won by Maurice Garin of France. To say that the race and the riders have changed since then would be an amazingly terrible understatement. The race, the riders, the bikes and cycling as a whole has changed dramatically over the 104 years of the race's history. One thing has remained intact though- the sheer spectacle and impact of the event. No other single race has shaped the history and legend of the sport like Le Tour and no other event has made or destroyed riders quite the same way either.
The 2006 event was marred just days before starting when numerous riders were tossed out of the event, including the pre-race favorites Ivan Basso and Jan Ulrich, due to the Operation Puerto drug scandal. The effects of that scandal are still being felt as riders continue to be implicated in doping. Just days after the event last year, the winner- Floyd Landis- tested "non-negative" for steroids with abnormal testosterone levels. The fallout and pending suspension or acquittal is still being awaited. In 1998, the Tour almost didn't happen due to the Festina Affair doping scandal that rocked the event and lead to rider protests of the way they were being treated by the race organizers and the French police. The winner of that edition was Marco Pantani, who was later found guilty of doping and sporting fraud and who later committed suicide via a drug overdose, after suffering years of depression after his doping troubles.
Needless to say, things are a mess at the moment. Erik Zabel, 6-time winner of the sprinter's green jersey, admitted to doping during his time with the T-Mobile team (when it was called Telekom). Oddly, he claims to have only doped in 1996- the year that CSC team director Bjarne Riis won the Tour while also riding for Telekom. Riis has since confessed to doping during his career and doping to win the Tour. Obviously, the fallout caused by all of this doping is casting quiet a dark cloud over the event and the sport of cycling itself. Hell, the current winner of the Giro d'Italia, Danilo DiLuca, is now in the middle of a doping controversy and the Giro sprinter's jersey winner, Alessandro Petacchi, is not riding the Tour due to an investigation into alleged doping as well. It would be another striking understatement to say that the Tour and the sport of cycling needs this year's edition to be drug free. Here's to hoping that the winner is squeaky clean.
With no returning winner and other contenders out of the event due to doping links, this year's race looks to be wide open. A few riders stand out as contenders, but there is no one rider who looks like a sure bet. None of the teams look likely to dominate the race either. So, many of the classifications of the event (Overall Winner, Best Sprinter, Best Climber, Best Young Rider and Overall Team) should actually be a contest.
21 teams with 9 riders each will be taking to the streets of London for the Prologue. 189 riders will start, but many will abandon along the way- either due to fatigue, injury or having done their jobs for their team leaders. Of those 189 riders, only a few stand a chance of winning the race or one of the classifications, let alone even winning a stage. As the race has become the most important event in all of cycling, the pressure is extremely high and the nerves are worn extremely thin. Entire seasons (and careers) are built for the next three weeks... in short, this is about to get really good!
A complete list of the teams and their riders can be found here- I'm just gonna cover the important riders and contenders. So, in order of their race numbers during the event... here we go:
Caisse d'Epargne- This is the team of last year's surprise runner up, Oscar Pereiro. Sadly for Oscar, he's likely to be playing a supporting role to the team's true star, Alejandro Valverde. Valverde, though a little lacking in the time trial department, can climb well and is a very good sprinter from out of a small group. He has the punchiness and the nose for the win that a true champion must have. Valverde has been heralded as the next Indurain since he stormed on to the world stage. He's a classy young rider, but has so far never finished a Tour. He nearly won the Vuelta last year, though faded in the mountains and lost to Vinokourov. Can he pull off the Tour win? It's really hard to say, but a lot of Spanish fans will be screaming his name either way. The team has plenty of stength, with riders like Karpets, Arroyo and Portal, so they could actually defend the yellow jersey if they get to... IF.
T-Mobile- The team of former Tour winners and embattled doping scandal riders Bjarne Riis and Jan Ulrich, T-Mobile does at least know how to win the race, but has often fallen victim to poor race tactics and fighting among the numerous team leaders. This year, the team comes to support the GC ambitions of Australian Michael Rogers. Rogers is a three time Time Trial World Champion, so the TT's will be no real problem for him. However, he's not known as a great climber. He's gotten tons better and is now riding for himself and not in the service of another leader. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the best team to support him now. T-Mobile lost Andreas Kloden to Astana, the team of Vinokourov, and lost a few other riders to the Puerto doping scandal (including climbing specialist Oscar Sevilla). On paper, the team looks like it is strong, but not strong enough to win or defend. My money is on T-Mobile trying to sneak a stage win or two while Rogers, 27 years old, tries to find out if he can really contend for the yellow jersey.
Team CSC- CSC is owned and directed by Bjarne Riis, who has said he will not be present during the Tour, to keep the focus on the riders and not on him, after his doping confession. CSC used to employ Ivan Basso as well, but he is serving a racing ban for involvement in the Puerto case and left for Discovery Channel after getting fired by CSC when he was first implicated in the scandal (seems kinda hypocritcal now though, doesn't it). CSC now, like T-Mobile, lacks a true leader for the troops to rally behind. The team is very close knit though, so whoever is doing well will get full support. Carlos Sastre is the team's official leader, but Dave Zabriskie has stated he aims to be a contender in the event as well. With outstanding support riders like current and former Paris-Roubaix winners Stuart O'Grady and Fabian Cancellara (also current TT World Champion) and the always agressive Jens Voigt, CSC is still likely the strongest team in the race. Full of high power riders and fully cohesive, CSC is the team to watch... but not likely for the yellow jersey in Paris.
Predictor-Lotto- The boys in pink are one of the best teams in cycling. With Robbie McEwen as their speed demon, they are sure to take a few stage wins and likely the Green Jersey of best Sprinter. What they lack, and alwways have, is a true contender for the final GC. The team will be riding for Cadel Evans as their GC guy. Cadel is top 10 material and can climb with the best, but he's so far not shown that he can find the legs to last for three weeks. American riders Fred Rodriguez and Chris Horner (originally from the San Diego area and a former co-worker of mine many years ago), will be splitting their time in support of McEwen and Evans. Both riders are also capable of grabbing a stage win, if the chance arises, so keep an eye on them too. The rest of the team is very strong support riders, but it will be hard to see them defending the yellow jersey. Their best hope is for Cadel to take the jersey late in the race, when the other teams are also tired. However... I don't see Evans doing it, as much as I would like to see the likable Aussie win. Instead, look for the team to turn green with McEwen again.
Rabobank- Rabobank is one of the most likable teams, but they do not have a GC threat in their ranks. Instead, they have Michael Rasmussen, the former MTB World Champion (while riding for Haro), gunning for his third climber's jersey. The rail thin Dane is one of the most feared climbers in the racing world, so he will surely be on the hunt for the jersey again. Along with Rasmussen, the team employs 3-time road World Champion Oscar Freire. Sadly though, word is that Oscar is not feeling well with the return of a cyst that sidelined him for most of the year in 2005. Oscar is one of the smartest and cagiest sprinters in the game, but he is also the most fragile. If he can ride strong, he'll be a threat, if not... he won't likely be in Paris. The entire team is strong though, and could contend for the Team Classification. Thomas Dekker, the promising young rider, is set to start his first Tour and is being touted as a possible contender- if not now, then one day. He can climb well, TT with the best and has shown an aggressive style that could take him far. This year? Prolly not.
AG2R Prevoyance- The team of newly crowned French champion Christophe Moreau. Moreau has been the best French rider of the Tour for years now- seemingly the past few decades- but he's not been on the podium. Outside of Richard Virenque, he's been the only French contender in a long, long time. And that's sad. This year, many have him pegged to win. Well, French fans anyway. Here's the God-honest truth: Moreau will NOT win the Tour. The rest of the team, though good, is not great and does not really stand much of a chance to do much more than contend for a stage win. Young Aussie Simon Gerrans might be their best hope of a stage win. Keep an eye on the kid.
Euskaltel-Euskadi- Sponsored by the Basque region of Spain, this team is among the most loved in cycling, especially in Spain and even more especially in the Basque region of Spain. The orange clad riders and fans can be spotted in greatest numbers on the mountains. The team is built largely for climbing and really hurts a lot of other teams and riders with their climbing power. The team is made up of riders that almost nobody knows outside of Spain. That said, people will know their names better when the race hits the toughest climbs. No GC contenders, no sprint contenders, no contenders for much of anything... but they will animate the mountain stages and might even defy the odds and grab a win. Hey, anything can happen (except for Moreau winning the Tour).
Lampre-Fondital- The team of Damiano Cunego... who isn't racing at the Tour. Without Cunego, the team stands a snowball's chance in hell of winning the GC, so they will be putting all their hopes into formidable sprinter Danilo Napolitano. The team actually has a few strong riders who can sprint well, so look for them at the front of the race when the sprint trains are setting up. Napolitano is fast, but then again, so is Alessandro Ballan or Daniele Bennati. The team will be looking for stage wins in the sprints and the rest of the time will likely be keeping their heads out of the wind and resting for the chance to set up a sprint. Napolitano could prove to be McEwen's biggest threat.
Gerolsteiner- The "other German team" in the Tour. Made up of great one-day event riders and Stefan Schumacher. Schumacher is the team's only real hope for anything, but is not a GC threat. He can take a win or two, but that's about all. Though I like the team, I wouldn't expect to see too much of them. Maybe a stage win or two... but that's about all they can hope for.
Credit Agricole- Thor Hushovd, the huge Norwegian, will be looking to win another green jersey and hopefully a stage or two (he won two last year). Hushovd is one of those sprinters who is neither the fastest from far away or up close, but he manages to get his nose over the line somehow. He's a big boy and takes up a lot of room on the road. On top of that, he's a good guy, even if he looks like he might kill you. Unfortunately, if McEwen is on form, Hushovd will be left to chase him and pick up the points left over. Still, I expect him to take a stage. Outside of that, the team really doesn't have much else going on. Building a team for the Tour with 5 French riders is just a bad idea... but hopefully Thor can do the job.
Discovery Channel- The team of former 7 time Tour winner, Lance Armstrong. Life after Lance has been really hard for the team. Last year was a bit painful for the team, though they fought hard and tried. Even without Lance, the wins come to the team... just not at the Tour. Johan Bruyneel is probably the best team director in the sport, at least one of the best. He was able to shepherd Lance to all of his wins and even Lance said it would not have been possible without Johan. Still, Johan can't make just any rider win. Sadly for him. The team is now being led by Levi Leipheimer, since Ivan Basso is now serving a ban for doping. Levi, though I like the guy and he's been in the top ten before, is still not likely to win. He could, if he has damned good legs, make the final podium. His climbing, though sometimes spotty, is superb and his TT riding has become very good as well. Unfortunately, Levi seems to struggle from either that dreaded "off day" or crisis of confidence every year at the Tour. He's won the shorter Tour of Germany in the past, along with the Tour of California this year. He can contend in the shorter stage races, for sure, but can he do it for three weeks? Even he doesn't know that answer. George Hincapie returns again with the team to try and get a stage win and maybe even try to better his maiden attempt at the GC last year. George went to the Tour as a hopeful leader and came up way short. This year, the pressure is gone and he is able to return to his faithful lieutenant role. That means he can go for a stage win, if given the right conditions. The team also has other strong riders in the young gun Alberto Contador and the potential-laden Yaroslav Popovych. Can this team win? Not the GC probably, but maybe the Team Classification.
Bouygues Telecom- Even more French than Cerdit-Agricole and with even less of a chance to win the Tour. Maybe, just maybe, they can take a stage win... but I dunno. Thomas Voeckler is on nearly everybody's likable-guy list, after riding in yellow for several days during the 2004 Tour. He fought his ass off to stay in yellow and won the hearts of cycling fans around the world. The team always seems to find a way to get the team kit on TV and did take a stage last year. For a bunch of ho-hum riders, they do ride with heart. However, heart only takes you so far and these guys will be working hard.
Agritubel- One of the wildcard teams from the Continental Pro Tour ranks, these guys ride with heart too, but this is the Tour. I'd love to see them take a stage win, but this is going to be the hardest three weeks of the season for this team... just to survive. Last year they actually got a stage win and this year's team looks a bit stronger. Can they do it with a team of mid-level Euro pros on the big stage again? Maybe. Maybe not. At least you know they will be trying.
Cofidis- Here's another great team of riders who will fight it out and contend for stage wins, but they lack a GC threat. Packed with strong riders, they should be able to take a win. If nothing else, Brad Wiggins is the odds-on favorite to win the prologue in London. Outside of Wiggins, the team hopes rest with very classy rider Sylvain Chavenel. He's been touted as one the great French hopes to win... but he won't. He's a strong all around rider, but he's lacked the necessary talent to pull off the big win- especially in a three week race. He's a favorite among the French fans, but he's not gonna win.
Liquigas- Home to embattled Giro winner Danilo DiLuca, Liquigas is going to be racing the Tour for stage wins. The team's best hope is for a stage win from Filippo Pozzato. Other than that... long, doomed breakaways for camera time for the sponsors. I love these guys, but they are not going to be able to do too much. The team is not weak, but they are tired from the Giro and fighting off doping allegations. Look for them to race bravely and hopefully try to get a stage win.
Francaise des Jeux- Another French team with riders who are great and all... but they will be fighting for scraps. Once a great team, and still a really good team, the team this year will be looking for opportunities. Directed by former Paris-Roubaix winner, Marc Madiot, the team has great tactical sense and might actually grab a win. Look for them to animate the race with some of the other smaller teams. Sandy Casar could still surprise a few folks... they sure need him to.
Quickstep-Innergetic- This is the team of Tornado Tom Boonen. Tom is the peloton's most feared sprinter when he is on form. He says he that he is and that he is super motivated for the battle with McEwen for the green jersey. Tom is the Belgian national hero and will be doing all he can to take the yellow jersey and wear it when the Tour enters Belgium. Without Tom, the team really has no hope of doing anything. This team is built 100% around protecting Boonen and his blistering sprint. If he gets to the finish line in good position, he's nearly unbeatable. As a winner of many of the toughest Spring Calssics, including Roubaix, Tom is no stranger to suffering it alone and in hard conditions. If he has the legs, he'll hurt people with them. I expect a darned good battle between Tom and Robbie. It should be too close to call until we get to Paris.
Milram- Without Petacchi, thanks to doping problems, the team is now relying heavily on confessed doper and much-loved German veteran Zabel. The aging star still has great speed, but can he find enough speed to contest the sprints with the new young guns? Not likely. Maybe Brett Lancaster will pop out of his leadout roll and move up to main sprinter. He's plenty fast and certainly knows how to get to the front. Outside of possible sprint stage wins, the team doesn't have much to do at the Tour. With the cloud of doping over the team and Petacchi out, they will be riding to protect their image. Hopefully they do that.
Astana- This is the team to watch! If anybody has a shot at winning the Tour and has a reason to try, it's Vinokourov. Thrown out last year because he didn't have enough riders to field a team, Vino went on to win the Vuelta and prove that he could win a 3 week race. He's also brought over former T-Mobile teammate Andreas Kloden- who was third last year and second in 2004. Also on the team is former Giro winner Paolo Savoldelli. This is the team that could truly challenge for the yellow jersey as well as the Team Classification. Kloden wants to win the Tour, though he says he'll be working for Vino, unless he falters. With two major contenders at the helm, the team will either slaughter the field or implode loudly. I expect that Vinokourov will ride as he always does- attacking, attacking, attacking. He seems to race with reckless abandon, yet it works. Kloden is far more methodical, much like his friend, mentor and former teammate Ulrich. Regardless, Astana is going to be the team to beat.
Saunier Duval-Prodir- This team is fresh off of winning the Team title at the Giro, along with 4 stage wins with 4 different riders. However, this is not the same team- outside of Iban Mayo. Mayo seems to be finding some of his former form, so he could be a dark horse. That said, he's never finished a Tour and once said that he felt the race just was not for him. Oh well, he's back to try again. Also coming for the ride is the very popular long-time fighter of doping allegations and later confessor of doping, Robert Millar (I meant DAVID Millar- Ed). Something about Millar keeps him a popular rider and he is finding ways to win again- he says clean now. He should be more than a little motivated to win the opening prologue in London, so look for his time to be among the fastest on the day. The team is packed with climbing talent, so the mountain stages will be fought out between the yellow Saunier jerseys and the orange of Euskaltel-Euskadi.
Team Barloworld- The other wildcard Continental team, Barloworld should help animate things and will likely pin all its hopes on fast man Robert Hunter of South Africa. Hunter can win with the big boys, when he's at his best, but can his team get him into position? That's going to be the big question. The rest of the team is made up of very capable riders, but their best hope is to get into a longshot breakaway and hope that the real GC contenders are willing to let them get away. Otherwise, they are going to be hoping to get Hunter into the right place at the right time. Expect to see them in long suicide breaks... but not necessarily on the podium.
And that's the team break down. (Damn that took forever!)
It's almost time now! Vive le Tour!