Tales from the peloton, July 28, 2007
A time trial showdown to rival 1989?
Today's individual time trial - stage 19 of the 2007 Tour de France - is set up for a thriller. An emerging young Spanish rider in the maillot jaune doggedly pursued by a stoic and popular Australian, while an American is in third and also with a sniff of victory. It has been a few years since the final ITT of the Tour de France was this close and where the outcome was far from predictable.
It has many in the sport thinking back to the dramatic final stage of the 1989 Tour de France, where the American, Greg LeMond, snatched victory from Frenchman Laurent Fignon by the all-time smallest winning margin of eight seconds.
Indeed, eight seconds has achieved a certain significance in cycling; mention a close race or time-gap of eight seconds, and that final stage invariably springs to mind. But today's ITT is different; it is to be followed by another road stage, whereas in 1989, the ITT wrapped up the race.
This final road stage into Paris and then the laps of Champs-Élysées has traditionally been something of a procession, that is until the peloton hits Paris and then it's game-on for the masses lining the route that passes many famous Parisian landmarks.
The protagonists in today's three way tussle at the top of the general classification are Discovery Channel's Spanish GC leader, Alberto Contador, Predictor-Lotto's Aussie team leader, Cadel Evans (at 1.50 behind), and the consistent American, Levi Leipheimer (at 2.49), also with Discovery Channel.
In this 94th Tour's first individual time trial, Evans was faster by over a minute to both Contador and Leipheimer in the wet and hilly parcours surrounding the city of Albi. Today's test is a much flatter affair, with the highest point on the course only 105 metres higher than the start house in Cognac, coming just after the 35 kilometre mark.
On a course like this, Evans and Leipheimer would normally out-class a climber like Contador, but wearing the yellow jersey has done amazing things for riders in the past. Then again, as LeMond showed in 1989, chasing that yellow jersey can also motivate riders, too.
Evans has the advantage over Leipheimer, in that he is starting behind the American - the riders in the ITT start in reverse order on GC, with the MJ last to leave the start-house. Leipheimer out on the course will be like dangling a carrot in front of a rabbit for the Australian; Evans can focus on smashing the first intermediate time set by the Discovery rider. Evans' first time-check will be relayed to the Discovery Channel team car following Contador, who will start after Evans, and sitting inside that car will be team director, Johan Bruyneel, and it's reported that seven-time TdF winner, Lance Armstrong, is jetting into France to offer his support.
Based on current form, it's likely that Evans will better Leipheimer's time, and how Contaqdor responds to the pressure of a storming Evans' performance will be a huge test of his maturity.
After a quiet start, Leipheimer has been gradually improving throughout this year's Tour, making his way up the overall classification slowly over the past two weeks. Today presents a difficult opportunity for the American: with his team-mate in the lead, and 'only' the final stage to Paris remaining, there's no need to save anything for tomorrow. Or is there? Leipheimer can go all-out in order to claw back the time on the Australian, potentially in search of a Disco one-two should something go wrong during Evans' run. Second, however, is the best he can hope for, as it would take a catastrophic turn of events for Leipheimer to take enough time back from both Contador and Evans to end up in yellow.
Contador is well aware that he has everything to lose today, with only 1.50 separating him from Evans going into the ITT, especially after Evans out-foxed the Spaniard and his wily team director, Bruyneel, in the finale of yesterday's stage into Angoulême. Evans clawed back another three seconds and interestingly, it was Contador who was gapped during the run-in into Angoulême while Evans held the wheels of the sprinters' lead-out trains.
So, Evans has proven that he is the stronger time trialer of the duo, and now, he appears to be the hungrier of the two. On any analysis, Evans has paid his dues, he's had more than his fair-share of bad luck over the years; there is a certain feeling in the air that this is his time. However, Contador will be hoping to receive the extra strength that so many riders before him have gained from holding the leader's jersey in order to hold off the outback-born Aussie rider.
If the stage plays out so that a minute separates the trio heading into tomorrow's final romp into Paris, then it's likely the second-placed rider on GC will concede defeat and the overall victory. However, it's more than possible that just a handful of seconds could separate first, second and even third on GC. Then, it's more than likely we will see fireworks on the closing 146 kilometre test. Traditionally the final stage is a procession affair around the Champs-Élysées for the public, with a gentlemen's agreement between the top GC riders not to attack one another if there is a gap greater than what is on offer in the final day (in the form of time bonuses for the finish). But for the sprinters battling over the green jersey, it's a completely different story: this is their day and that green jersey points competition is still on the line, even though current maillot vert wearer Tom Boonen (Quick.Step-Innergetic - QSI) has a 24 point lead over the South African, Robert Hunter (Barloworld) and the six-time winner of this competition, Erik Zabel (Milram), is in third.
It's unlikely that the opposing Belgian directors-sportif heading up Predictor-Lotto and Discovery Channel, Henrik Redant and John Bruyneel, respectively, will concede defeat if either of their charges has a chance to win on the Sunday. The gap would have to be small enough to encourage the total mayhem that would ensue as both teams try to snatch time bonuses. It would lead to a completely non-traditional final stage, and this year's Tour has been anything but traditional.
Indeed, Predictor-Lotto is certainly the stronger team in a flat-chat, kermesse-style blast around a cobbled parcours. After all, many of the riders were selected to assist Robbie McEwen pick up stage wins; bringing a rider to the line in safety is their speciality. Predictor-Lotto's team boss Redant may find he has a similar goal to that of QSI's director Patrick Lefevere, who wants to see his sprinter, Boonen, stand on the podium in Paris wearing that green jersey.
There are only a few certainties as Le Tour sets up for the run home to Paris. Providing they don't crash out, Contador will win the white jersey for best young rider, and climbing sensation Juan Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) will return to Colombia with the polka dot king-of-the-mountains jersey on his Tour debut. Boonen's green jersey is far from a done deal, unless he has some support from another Belgian squad that's also interested in a time bonus. What is certain is the extremely unlikely instance of QSI and Discovery Channel working together. Based on events this year, not even the two biggest pragmatists in the sport could see eye-to-eye on that deal.
Should this thrilling push towards Paris go down to the wire on tomorrow's final stage, these peloton alliances will definitely come into play. Two Belgian teams work together? This isn't April. Boonen has already indicated he supports the team leader of his rival Belgian Predictor-Lotto squad, and the sprinter commands plenty of respect among his peers in the peloton. But if that is enough to work against Discovery Channel, a team clearly thirsty to pick up where it left off at the end of Lance Armstrong's reign, desperate to impress a potential new sponsor to continue into the future, or even if it comes down to that, we will have to wait to find out.