The men to watch in the stage 18 time trial
Alberto Contador may lead this year's Tour de France by a commanding margin over the likes of Andy and Fränk Schleck, teammates Lance Armstrong and Andreas Klöden, Bradley Wiggins and Vincenzo Nibali, but the Spaniard now faces a major hurdle on the road to a second Tour de France title - the Annecy time trial.
They don't call it the 'race of truth' for nothing. While yesterday's queen stage from Bourg-Saint-Maurice to Le Grand-Bornand may have installed sibling duo Andy and Fränk Schleck in second and third place overall respectively, today's time trial around Lake Annecy will be the test of whether these two Luxembourgers with a penchant for climbing can hold their positions into Saturday's critical Mont Ventoux stage.
Breathing down the necks of this leading trio are riders with proven pedigrees in riding time trials; they have a sackful of Tour de France TT wins, Olympic gold medals and world championship titles amongst them and each is hell bent on making today's race against the clock their own in Annecy.
We rate the contenders for stage 18 and analyse their chances of turning time trial success into a push for glory in the general classification
1. Fabian Cancellara (Saxo Bank)
The Swiss master of timed tests has enjoyed a magnificent Tour de France thus far. A stage win in Monaco and subsequent stay of six days in the maillot jaune, Cancellara only faltered when the roads pointed skywards. At 1.86m and 80kg, you can understand why.
It's for this very reason that he should go into today's stage the overwhelming favourite. At 40km the stage is long and flat enough for him to wind up that mythical motor and power to another time trial win. The category three Côte de Bluffy shouldn't be a major obstacle for the Saxo Bank rider - he can power up its slopes using the momentum from the preceeding 26km.
Stage prediction: First
Overall: Doesn't matter, the Tour's already a success
2. Alberto Contador (Astana)
Second in the Monaco time trial, Contador used his deceptively powerful climbing ability to finish behind the man they call 'Spartacus' on the Tour's opening day. He hasn't looked vulnerable at any time in this year's edition of la Grande Boucle and that shouldn't change in today's time trial.
He won't win in Annecy but we won't lose anywhere near enough time to cede his first place on general classification to any of his rivals. He makes domination look easy with his wonderful quick step waltz on those Look pedals.
Stage prediction: Second
Overall: Odds on favourite
3. Lance Armstrong (Astana)
Yes, he's almost 38 years old, yes he's only been racing again since January, following a three-year retirement and yes, he did spend part of that comeback recovering from surgery on a broken collarbone. The numbers don't lie, however.
Once the king of the Tour TT, the American amassed a stunning eight victories in races against the clock at the Tour de France from 1999 until his retirement in 2005. Two prologues and six major road time trials line his palmares, a strong performance in them often used to seal the deal on an overall Tour title.
He even finished 13th in the 60km long TT at this year's Giro d'Italia with form some would consider underdone given his recovery from that shattered collarbone. With a GC carrot dangling in front of him, in reality there's no rider more primed for this time trial than Lance Armstrong.
Stage prediction: Third
Overall: A top five placing is certainly possible
4. Bradley Wiggins (Garmin-Slipstream)
We've been put on notice during this Tour de France as to the enormous potential in Bradley Wiggins. Garmin-Slipstream boss Jonathan Vaughters has managed to unleash the Brit's engine on the slopes of the Tour's climbs and the results have been stunning.
With three Olympic gold medals - in the individual and team pursuit from Athens and Beijing - there's no surprises about Wiggins' ability against the clock. This used to be his focus, although with his performance over the past two weeks it becomes an arrow in his quiver rather than just the bow. Like Cancellara, the Côte de Bluffy shouldn't cause too many problems.
Stage prediction: Fourth
Overall: Fifth overall isn't out of the question, will need to be wary on Mont Ventoux
5. Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas-Doimo)
The Czech rider could be a real surprise in this time trial. He's a class act with the full range of tools available to do the job on general classification. Hasn't shone in the mountains but that may help him in Annecy.
Part of Liquigas' two-man attack on the overall standings, he has worked well with Vincenzo Nibali and with the small climb coming later in the course should shake up the rankings at the finish this afternoon.
Stage prediction: Fifth
Overall: Top 10 very possible
6. Andreas Klöden (Astana)
Astana's experienced German could be hurting after yesterday's efforts - he was dropped by the Schleck brothers and Contador up the Col de la Colombière before limping to the finish in Le-Grand-Bornand. If he's recovered he could be a real threat and has proven himself in time trials in the past.
The big question will be whether he wants to save himself for Mont Ventoux and a push at for an overall podium place or try and attack the Schleck brothers against the clock.
Stage prediction: Sixth
Overall: Top five well within reach
7. Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas-Doimo)
Boy, has this guy been impressive. Those who have watched the Italian over the last few years won't be surprised by his performance in this year's Tour, although it will be interesting to watch his command of the race against the clock in the pressure cooker of the Tour's final week.
He's put some big efforts in throughout the mountains but it shouldn't have hurt him too much. Kreuziger is better in a TT but Nibali will finish higher than his teammate on general classification.
Stage prediction: Seventh
Overall: Definitely a top five placing
8. Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto)
It hasn't been Cadel's year. The Australian has had a tough time of it in the alps and the time trial is a chance to salvage some pride. Has proven in the past that he's very capable against the clock and with a point to prove he may be flying this afternoon.
Despite losing time in the mountains his legs should be good to fire off a top 10 in Annecy. Here's hoping he can show us the Cadel that has come so close to the overall win for the past two years.
Stage prediction: Eighth would be good for morale
Overall: By his own admission, it's time to look towards 2010
9. David Millar (Garmin-Slipstream)
It's been an interesting Tour so far for David Millar. He came so close to the win on stage six in a rainy and slippery Barcelona before it was time to turn on the domestique duties in the mountains. Once considered an overall Tour contender, the Scotsman is at home as a paternal figure in the Garmin-Slipstream squad, which has helped his riding.
A sentimental favourite to perform well in Annecy, a top 10 is realistic but a top five would be fantastic.
Stage prediction: Ninth
Overall: Not important to him; focused on helping Wiggins on Saturday
10. Vladimir Karpets (Team Katusha)
Don't rule out the big Russian for some sweet time trial action! Karpets has ridden a strong Tour so far, exemplified in his time off the front with Franco Pellizotti during stage 16. He's always had the engine, was the best young rider in the 2004 Tour and is proud of representing the homeland as part of the Katusha squad.
Stage prediction: 10th
Overall: Staying in the first 15 would be a job well done
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