Welcome to the 4th annual Masiguy Tour de France daily coverage. As in years past, all I do is read the same news the rest of you do- maybe watch the stage highlights on TV- and then write my coverage with my own spin... and my amazing insight and wit... or something like that. Now and again, I might get a touch of insider news from a few contacts here and there, so stay tuned for that possibility.
Today, on this fabulous 4th of July, we'll start off with a bit of team coverage before tomorrow's Stage 1.
And here we go...
In the order listed by the Tour organizers, based on their position in the Tour's finish last year and some willy-nilly, arbitrary system the ASO has put together;
Silence-Lott0: Led by Tour favorite Cadel Evans, the team shows up to this Tour ready to rumble. Sprinter Robbie McEwen will essentially be on his own this year, as the team is rallying it's forces behind the hopes of Evans. Evans was second at the Tour last year and with last year's winner, Alberto Contador, and his Astana team disallowed to compete this year, he becomes the odds-on favorite to win. But... hold on a sec'- can the team do it? Evans is a tough rider, perhaps a bit too congenial and timid, but he's lacking a true heavy hitting team to back him up. His main lieutenant will be former Tour hopeful Yaroslav Popovych... who has thus far fallen apart in each of his previous Tours. Cadel certainly has the ability to win the race, but with EVERYBODY in this Tour marking him, can his team support him and will he EVER actually attack? I like the guy and I like the team, but I fear he'll need more support and will need to forge alliances on the road. I'm also hoping that McEwen finds his way to some daylight on the finishing straights. He's one of the best in the world when a sprint gets ugly. I haven't seen the same speed of years past, but he's an emotional favorite for a win or two. His new arch rival, Mark Cavendish of Team Columbia (formerly Team High Road, formerly T-Mobile), looks to make it really interesting. More on that in a bit...
CSC-Saxo Bank: Admitted doper and former Tour winner ('96) Bjarne Riis is one of the greatest minds in cycling. He has resurrected countless careers and started others. He's a genius at building teams that fight day in and day out. I have immense respect for his talents (especially his bike tossing talent). Although Riis once again has one of the very best teams in the world, it looks like a Tour win as a director remains out of reach. Carlos Sastre is a great rider with some great top ten finishes in the Tour... but he won't be taking the top step of the podium unless a meteor hits the peloton while he's off in the bushes taking a "nature stop". He's won a stage before... but he's no Tour champion. That said, Riis still has some of the best riders in the race. Fabian Cancellara has been en fuego this year and looks to be in great form again. I expect to see him take another stage win. How the peloton can even think of letting him get up the road is beyond me. He's the world TT champ for a reason, you dumbasses- why let him escape? Jeesh! Stuart O'Grady is one of my favorite riders in the world and I'm rooting for this Roubaix-winning Aussie to take a stage. He's just all class. Jens Voigt is still one of the peoloton's toughest tough guys. The German rider is notorious for long breakaway attempts and occasionally they net him the win. Everything I've ever read or heard about the guy points to a good guy I'd love to have a pint with. The two Schleck brothers look to be future Tour contenders and might surprise and even inch up to the podium, but I have a feeling the legs are still a bit young on these Luxembourg boys. BUT... don't rule either out- not now or ever.
Euskaltel-Euskadi: A whos'-who of Spanish climbing aces. This team has launched many careers for Spanish riders and is always one to watch in the mountains. You'd think they were giving out free bowls of paella at the top of every mountain with the way these guys climb. It's straight up insanity. Still, you have to marvel at these guys because they NEVER stop trying. Full of riders you might have never heard of, the team really is kind of at the Tour to keep things exciting. Without them, the mountains just seem like big hills where everybody rides really slow. With them... it's fireworks. The only "big name" rider on the team is Samuel Sanchez. This kid is the real deal and could possibly become a real threat if he ever pieces it all together- and ever has a strong enough team to supoort him on stages without hills. If the Tour ever does a climbing-only race, this would be the team to watch. Until then, they are a blast to watch climb and frightening to watch on flat ground.
Caisse d'Epargne: Another Spanish team that has the potential to do great things. With 2006 Tour runner-up-turned-winner Oscar Pereiro on board, the team looks good on paper. What really makes them look good though is Alejandro Valverde. Fresh off his win at Daupine-Libere, Valverde is the dark horse favorite. He's never shown that he can win a Grand Tour yet, but nearly everybody believes he can and will. He's got awesome climbing skills and can sprint very, very well from a small group. He's a proven tough guy in one day events as well and has improved in the time trials too. He can win a Tour, but will he? Hmmm. The rest of the team is French and Spanish climbing specialists, so the flatter stages will be spooky, especially if they end up with Valverde or Pereiro in yellow. I think Valverde can do it, but can he do it with this particular team? I kinda doubt it.
Team Columbia: Formerly Team High Road, which was the reborn T-Mobile, Columbia has probably the most boring team kit in the peloton... still. High Road was bad enough, but this new kit is just as bad if not worse. I will gladly design a new team kit for you Bob- for free- so just gimme a call. Get your people in touch with mine. Columbia is the home of George Hincapie now. He's been riding well this year, though not great, and I think he'll prove to be one of the team's best riders for a stage win. They don't really have a GC contender, no matter how many times they try to tell us Kim Kirchen can win it. Kirchen is good, but the Schlecks are the better Luxembourg riders. The real threat of Columbia is the sprinting powerhouse they have with Bernhard Eisel, Gerald Ciolek and Mark Cavendish. That is one of the fastest groups in the peloton right now. Cavendish is young and brash and not afraid of bleeding. He'll stick his nose out in the breeze for a sprint even when there is nowehere to go- a la Robbie McEwen. I predict the sprint battle between these two will be epic. Without a great leadout train, Robbie will have to privateer his way to the line... and if I were him, I'd be sitting on Cavendish. If Robbie has the legs this year, these two will have an epic fight. If not, I expect Cavendish to scare the piss out of all the other sprinters.
Barloworld: Barlo-who? Yeah, that's what everybody said until last year's Tour when Mauricio Soler lit up the climbing stages and took the KOM jersey and nearly finished on the podium. The team comes back as another question mark and Soler will be a marked man this time, but I expect they'll be a good team again. South African sprinter Robbie Hunter is back again and should be one to watch. I really like Hunter and I bet he can still win a stage. He's always ridden well and has just missed that big win several times, but he's got class and is bloody fast in the right sprint. He's not Boonen or Cavendish fast, but he can't be allowed to get in front of you by much. Also on Barloworld is former Sprint jersey winner Baden Cooke. Cookie Monster has had a few rough years, in many ways, but he's back to the Tour and is one of the most determined riders you'll meet this year. His career is nearing an end and I'm sure he'd like to prove a point or two before going away. I'll be watching him closely.
Liquigas: This team has a bunch of good riders, but one has to admit they aren't at the Tour to contest the GC. These guys are looking for stage wins. Their best known rider is probably Filipo Pozzato. He's a race winner and an aggressive rider, so he'll be sure to make things interesting. Outside of him though... it's a barren wasteland. I mean, they're great riders but none of them are going to be the rider to watch in this race. They are stacked with talent, but not really stage winning talent or GC contending talent. I wouldn't let them ride off en masse or anything, but I'm not expecting much from them this year... sorry guys.
Lampre: Here's a team to watch. It's been awhile since Lampre has been to the Tour to actually contend for the win with a rider who can actually do it. Damiano Cunego, the Little Prince, is at this Tour with fresh legs after skipping the Giro this year. Cunego is a pure talent, though he's proven a little fragile at times. Not a very good time trialist, but he can climb with all but the very best... accept for on those days when he IS the best. He's a bit spotty in his performances, but he has the talent to do it and I expect to see him make the race lively. He's not at all afraid to attack and could really put Evans into trouble if he does... well, at least until the time trials. Outside of Cunego, the team still brings great riders to support him. They bring great climbers and TT riders as well as sprinters. Alessandro Ballan is a fantastic Classics rider and will be on the hunt for a stage win... and he can certainly do it. Lampre goes on my short list of contenders.
Credit Agricole: Thor Hushovd is the main attraction here, again. The former Sprint jersey winner is always one to watch. He's not a sprinter in the pure speed style, but more of a brute strength guy. I always feel sorry for the front end of his bikes in a sprint- look closely and see how much force he puts on the bar, stem and fork/ headtube- it's insane! I remember seeing a photo of him sprinting at the Tour once and it looked like the front of the bike was going to rip off in his hands. You can't count him out for the Green Jersey competition... you just can't. Outside of Thor, the team brings nobody again. With the exception of the two great Aussie riders Simon Gerrans and Luke Renshaw, the team is full of filler for Thor. Gerrans and Roberts have both proven to be tough riders willing to work hard and suffer. This Tour might just reward one of them for that work ethic.
Quick Step: Why are they even in the race this year? Without Tom Boonen, who was uninvited because of a little cocaine problem, the team really has no purpose. Hell, they don't even have Paolo Bettini in the race. I'd be happy to have any of the Quick Step riders on my team, but they are way outgunned as a team here. They can hope that their non-contender status allows a rider or two to get in a good escape and fight off the field for the win, but that's about it. Hmmm... next team...
AG2R- La Mondiale: I love these guys. Perennial underdogs, they keep coming back for more and they are almost always sending riders off on long breaks to get the TV time for the sponsors. Their fighting spirit is akin to Euskaltel. They lack any real contenders for anything- GC or stage win- but you KNOW they'll still be trying. Cyril Dessel is probably the best known rider on the team and if you aren't French, you still might not know who he is. That said, I still like these guys and I hope they manage a win... just because.
Gerolsteiner: This German team NEEDS to do well as they will have no title sponsor soon and they need to attract a new one. I expect to see them fighting hard in this race to secure a paycheck for next year. Fabian Wegmann and Stefan Schumacher are the two best riders on the team this year. This group is strong though and has proven time and again that they know how to win bike races. Schumacher has a Tour stage win under his belt already and is a tough rider for those crappy stages in the rain or long distances. In the tradition of most great Classics teams, these guys just go out and flog themselves to make the race happen. If they fancy a certain stage, expect to see them hurting the field. However, without a GC contender on the team, they are fighting for stage wins only.
Agritubel: Here's one of those French wild card teams that is in the race simply because they are French and the race organizer chose them. It's that simple. Their team leader and GC hope is the permanent also-ran Christophe Moreau. Moreau is one of those riders who has been around for a long time and has some nice results and might have been a contender in a different decade... but not during the years he's ridden against the riders who he has raced against. He's a very popular rider with the French public, even after being on the Festina team of years past. Outside of Moreau, the team doesn't really have anybody with the possible exception of Jimmy Casper. Casper has won a stage in the past, but this likable French sprinter (an oxymoron there) is probably past his best years and a stage win now against the current crop of sprinters is not likely. If you are French, you are required by law to like these guys- even the one Spanish rider on the team.
Rabobank: Ugh... these poor guys. Last year they were having the Tour of the team's history! Danish rider Michael Rasmussen was leading the race, even as rumors swirled about missed doping controls and his unknown whereabouts during a secret training camp. In the end, Rasmussen was pulled from the race, while in yellow and near the finish, by his own team. In an attempt to avoid even worse publicity, he was sent home and later fired and has since been suspended from racing during a long appeals process. The team this year has no clearly defined super power, but does have Vuelta a Espana winner in Denis Menchov. Menchov is about as exciting as a blank sheet of paper, but the guy can ride a bicycle. He's yet to have a really solid Tour ever, but he looks like he is always due for one. I wouldn't rule him out, but I also wouldn't bet the house on him. The rest of the team is also solid with great riders like Juan Antonio Flecha and Oscar Freire. Freire has been World Champion a couple times and is a very fast finisher. In a long and nasty sprint, I'd look for him and Hushovd to be looking for the win. If he's healthy, he's a sprint contender. Flecha is a Classics specialist, so if the stage is hard and it starts to rain, I'd keep my eyes on him. The rest of the team is made up of great support riders who will do their best each and every stage.
Bouygues Telecom: Another of the French teams, but this one actually has riders in it who will race hard. None of them can contend for the podium, but they will make the rabid French fans happy with countless meaningless attacks. Fan-favorite Thomas Voeckler is a few years older since his 10 days in yellow back in the 2004 Tour, but the fans will still line the roads screaming his name. He's a very likable rider and is always trying to be in the thick of the action. Without Voeckler though, the team is really more of a B-Team squad. Sure, they're all better riders than me (for now), but don't expect too much from them over the next 3 weeks.
Milram: Well... they've got Erik Zabel anyway. Zabel holds the record for most consecutive Green jersey victories, but he's past his prime and might not have the legs to get a win anymore. He can still finish in the elite sprinter's group, but it'll be hard for him to get a win. Besides Zabel, the team is made up of good riders who are probably asking themselves, "what's our plan for the next 3 weeks?"
Francaise des Jeux; Director Marc Madiot is one of France's greatest riders of years past and is a great director. He's often able to get wins out of riders that don't look like winners, but they do it anyway. This team is here for a stage win and most likely in the lone Belgian on this all-French Tour squad, Philippe Gilbert. Gilbert is a great Classics rider and a likely Roubaix contender/ winner in the future. He's here at this Tour to snag a stage win and has the potential to do it. He's a classy rider who rides bravely and is not afraid to attack. The rest of the team will be cheering for him from the middle of the pack. It's a good thing they have race radios so they can hear about the finish of the stage...
Saunier Duval-Scott: The attraction here is the HUGE mouth and personality of Giro second place getter, Riccardo Ricco. I wonder how many times he'll insult his team for not helping him win the Tour. After narrowly losing the Giro to Contador, I suspect Ricco will be at the Tour looking to prove something. The only problem is that the'll have to contend with a bunch of other riders looking to do the same thing with fresher legs. The Giro is a very hard race and he was a contender for the title fighting hard every day. He's got overcooked legs, like a pot of pasta left boiling for too long- sure, with the right sauce, the noodles are still edible, but it's just not the same. The rest of the team is very strong and has some great names, most notably the amazingly evergreen Leonardo Piepoli. Honestly, I'd love to see Piepoli get a stage win... just to piss off Ricco. Can you imagine his tyrade?
Cofidis: This is one of the best French teams ever and they have always earned their pay at the Tour. However... don't go looking for a GC contender here. The team is loaded with talented riders, but that talent won't win this Tour- no way in hell. Sylvain Chavanel is a great rider with a lot of class. He likes to attack and knows a little more about tactics and timing than most other French riders. He could take a stage win along the way, but you can at least expect him to be fighting in it. The rest of the team is made up of great workaday riders, but none of them are really superstars. Chavanel is their one "big gun" and was once considered a contender for the Tour. He's yet to live up to that hype, but this is his year to try. Can his team support him though if he gets into yellow?
Garmin-Chipotle: Here's the little team that could. These guys are an emotional favorite for a lot of folks just because of who they are and what they represent. Jonathan Vaughters has put together an impressive team program and an even more impressive anti-doping program. The team won the opening team time trial at May's Giro, after specifically targetting it. This team is full of talented riders and surprises. Nobody can argue the Tour credibility of riders like David Millar and Magnus Backstedt. Christian Vande Velde has a few Tours under his belt as well. The rest of the team, though powerfully talented, is pretty new to Grand Tours. Danny Pate, the former U23 World TT champion, just finished his first Grand Tour at the Giro and might not have much left in the legs... but we'll find out in a few days. It's hard to not want to see these guys pull off a win along the way to Paris. I don't think they would deny that they aren't looking to win the GC, but are really at this year's Tour learning how to handle the pressure and logistics of the Tour. Give'em another couple years and I am confident Vaughters will have them at the race to contend for the win. Oh... and their new team kit, since switching to Garmin as title sponsor, still looks good. (I swear I don't know what Team Columbia was thinking. Seriously Bob... call me.)
So there's the team breakdown. Looks like a good race on paper, without any real clearcut favorite. Evans is leading in the oddsmaker's books, but his team will have to do something special to support his efforts. Cunego could do it. Valverde could do it. It's an open race- a really open race.
Since I'm the one writing all this crap, I'm going to hold off on selecting my podium predictions for a few days. I wanna see a few stages before I say anything- that's how close this thing is gonna be.
Like you, I'm looking forward to tomorrow and watching the race begin. So until then... sweet dreams of the Tour.