Tales from the peloton, September 19, 2007
The UCI ProTour is drawing to a close, with only the points from the Vuelta a España and the fall Classics Paris-Tours and the Giro di Lombardia left to provide any opportunity for advancement. Danilo Di Luca has led the series since he won the Giro d'Italia, but he has by no means sewn things up. Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo breaks down the ProTour standings past, present and future.
With all of the arguments between the UCI and the Grand Tour organisers over the UCI's ProTour series, it's easy to forget that there's a title at stake that the riders actually care about. Money, respect and the chance to wear a shiny white jersey in the series' races is on the line, and even if some of the organisers refuse to hold the ProTour jersey ceremony, it's still a hotly contested series.
Current ProTour leader Danilo Di Luca is fond of that white series leader jersey, having won the inaugural ProTour in 2005. That year he bested Tom Boonen and Davide Rebellin with strong performances throughout the season. None of these three factored into the ProTour equation in 2006, as Alejandro Valverde stormed through the Ardennes Classics, taking home titles in La Flèche Wallone and Liège - Bastogne - Liège, and then proceeding straight on through to the Vuelta a España where he took second overall.
This year, it was Di Luca's turn to dominate in the spring, and his strategy of lying low until late April and then hitting a massive peak through the Ardennes Classics and Giro d'Italia has paid off in spades. The Liquigas rider leads the ProTour standings by 51 points over his nearest competitor, Tour de France and Paris-Nice winner Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel). Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) is right on Contador's heels, just one point back after a solid early season.
Even more interestingly, Cadel Evans, the only rider in the top five of the ProTour standings currently racing the Vuelta, stands to earn big points if he can hold onto the podium position he currently occupies. The determined Aussie could very well wipe out Di Luca's 68 point advantage, but would have to hold his form until mid-October to fend off a late-season charge from Di Luca, something that would be quite challenging for the Predicttor-Lotto rider who has raced two consecutive Grand Tours.
Contador opens up the early lead
Contador opened up the early lead in the ProTour with his spectacular win in Paris-Nice. His overall victory plus two stage wins earned him 56 points - 14 points more than Gerolsteiner's Davide Rebellin, who led the race for several days until Contador took over on the last day.
Racing simultaneously in Italy, Andreas Klöden (Astana) won the overall in Tirreno-Adriatico, but did not take any stage wins. His second and third place stage finishes plus the 50 points for the overall victory earned him 53 points, and did not threaten the two day old white jersey of Contador.
Milan-Sanremo's victor, Oscar Freire, earned as many points for his sprint victory in that single day Classic as Contador and Klöden took home for eight day stage races, which seems somewhat unfair. However, with the life and limb-risking descent from the Poggio to deal with, it seems fitting that the Rabobank rider moved up to third in the ProTour standings after his win.
Di Luca had yet to earn a single ProTour point when Alessandro Ballan (Lampre-Fondital) took the surprise win in April's Tour of Flanders, moving up to fourth overall. Marcus Burghardt's (T-Mobile) win in Gent-Wevelgem was but a blip on the radar, tying him for eighth place with Milan-Sanremo runner-up Allan Davis (Discovery Channel) and Flanders runner-up Leif Hoste (Predictor-Lotto), but neither man threatened Contador's white jersey - but one man did: Oscar Freire.
The cobble-eschewing bunch of lightweights who took to Pais Vasco raced simultaneously with those hard men in Belgium, and while Contador went into the stage race with the white ProTour leader's jersey, he had the somewhat awkward experience of having to give it up mid-race when Freire took third in Gent-Wevelgem and overtook him in the standings - pointing out one fatal flaw with the ProTour system.
Aside from Contador conceding the white jersey, the Basque tour made no major changes in the standings, and even overall winner Juan Jose Cobo (Saunier-Duval) barely made waves when he moved up to fourth behind Freire, Rebellin and Contador. But the real fireworks were just about to begin.
Freire had just a short amount of time to enjoy his new-found colour, and the cobble-averse Spaniard went home before Paris-Roubaix, opening up the competition. Australia's Stuart O'Grady had been lurking down the page after his fifth in Milan-Sanremo, but his win in Paris-Roubaix rocketed the Team CSC rider past Freire to the top of the heap in the ProTour with a slim two point margin. 17 points behind in third was the ever consistent Rebellin, who was patiently awaiting the Ardennes to gather his points. Also ready to pounce was Liquigas' Di Luca, who was waiting and preparing for his big goals of the season - goals which just happened to coincide with Rebellin's.
O'Grady hardly had time to get the white jersey smudged with brake dust when Stefan Schumacher took the overall victory in the Amstel Gold Race. While the Gerolsteiner rider didn't threaten O'Grady, his team's dominating performance allowed Rebellin to get the better of Di Luca in the sprint for second, moving Rebellin into the white ProTour jersey, 10 points ahead of Freire, who finished a distant eighth. O'Grady did not start the race.
Rebellin's spectacular win in La Flèche Wallonne gave the white jersey its first win of the season, and also gave him a sizeable lead in the ProTour standings - 50 points more than Freire and a whopping 82 points ahead of Di Luca, who had to settle for third. Valverde's second place moved him into fifth in the standings behind Schumacher and O'Grady.
The tides were turned in Liège - Bastogne - Liège, and Di Luca pulled out the killer instinct that provides his moniker to demolish Valvede and Team CSC's Fränk Schleck. The win bagged Di Luca a valuable 50 ProTour points and moved him into third behind Rebellin, who still led the series by 57 points and Valverde, now just seven points in front of the Liquigas rider at the finish of the Spring Classics.
The Tour of Romandie and Volta Catalunya brought out the stick-armed stage racers, and overall winners Thomas Dekker (Rabobank) and Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne), respectively, did little to change the ProTour standings since the points they gained were their first of the year and didn't even put them into the top 10 of the ProTour.
Di Luca takes charge, and then a break
Coming into the first Grand Tour of the season, the Giro d'Italia was clearly the chance for Di Luca to shine, but who could have anticipated the 'Killer' taking the overall victory? His never-say-die style and tooth-grinding tenacity allowed the Italian to put his rivals at quite a distance with the 85 points for his overall win. Add to that points for two stage wins and a second place, he left the Giro towering over Rebellin by a hefty 50 points.
The ProTour is a game of consistency, however, and as Di Luca took a post-Giro break, it was time for other contenders to move up the charts. One such mover was Evans, whose seventh in Paris-Nice and fourth overall in Romandie had earned him 45 points. A strong second in the Dauphiné Libéré rocketed him up to sixth. Dauphiné winner Christophe Moreau (AG2r Prévoyance) went one better, gaining 87 points through that victory as well as his fourth overall in Catalunya and stage finishes, tying him for fourth in the ProTour with Damiano Cunego (Lampre-Fondital).
The Eindhoven Time Trial did little to the standings, but the Tour de Suisse managed to move winner Karpets and fifth overall Cunego up into the triple digits on points, with Cunego sitting tied with Valverde for fourth place. Which brings us to the Tour de France - the biggest points opportunity in the ProTour.
The Tour de France offered up a whopping 100 points for the overall winner, and with extra points on hand for each stage win things could look quite different after the race. Di Luca must have been sweating in his white lycra shirt when Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank), Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana) and Klöden left the Tour, because that left Contador - a rider in 13th with 78 ProTour points poised to threaten his lead.
Indeed, Contador succeeded in winning the Tour, and the 100 points plus 10 for his stage win and three for a third place stage finish blasted him up the standings from 13th to second, knocking at the door of Di Luca's stagnant 207 points with his 191. Close enough to provide some extra incentive for those mind-numbing midseason training rides.
Evans' second overall moved him into the same position on the ProTour rankings, ahead of Valverde in fourth and Rebellin in fifth, and just 17 points shy of Contador with 174 points. The Australian's preference for stage races dropped him back behind Valverde, however, when the latter took third in the Clasica San Sebastian, while the Tour of Germany failed to make any changes to the top six. Jens Voigt (Team CSC) was the biggest mover, heading up to 16th from 67th in the ProTour. Tour runner-up Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel) moved up to seventh from 15th, a position he'd quickly concede to Vattenfall Cyclassics runner-up Freire.
The September rush
With the top three stagnant since the end of the Tour and most of the contenders on break, the ProTour standings remained fairly steady after the Eneco Tour, with winner Jose Ivan Gutierrez (Caisse d'Epargne) hardly making a dent in 37th. But things got serious again when September rolled around. Di Luca dusted off his racing wheels to take a surprise third in the GP Ouest France - Plouay, further extending his lead over Contador from 16 to 41 points, while the rest of the top 20 in the ProTour remained unchanged.
Di Luca of might have been questioning his decision to head to the Tour of Poland when the better part of the peloton hit the deck on one stage or another, but the Killer survived the crash-fest to add another 10 points to his lead, while Ballan tacked on a few points to move into seventh in the ProTour with his fifth on general classification.
With plenty of points still available, the ProTour is by no means wrapped up. Currently sitting in third overall in the Vuelta a España, Evans stands to gain 50 points if he can hold his ground, 65 if he can overcome Vladimir Efimkin (Caisse d'Epargne) and move into second, or possibly even 85 points plus stage finishes if he can overhaul Vuelta leader Denis Menchov. He could very well wipe out the 68 point advantage of Di Luca, who will have to wait until after the World Championships to gain any points back.
But Evans would have to pull out something very special to hold onto whatever position he has after the Vuelta, as Di Luca will fight hard to hold onto his white shirt in the fall Classics, Paris-Tours and Giro di Lombardia, where 40 and 50 points, respectively, are up for grabs.