WHO'S GOING TO WIN THE TOUR?
With two more transitional days to go before hostilities in the race for the yellow jersey open up in earnest again with Saturday's time trial in Albi, it's time to assess the chances of the favourites for the Tour. The Alps were, in the end, a bit of a phoney war, with the big players keeping their best poker faces and, on the whole, concealing their cards.
Here is Cycling Weekly's run down of how the favourites stand against each other with ten days still to go.
Andreas Kloden - 8th at 3-50 behind Rasmussen
Still the favourite, despite a reported fracture of his coccyx, and Astana's seeming mule-headedness when it comes to cutting the chain that leads to the anchor that is Alexandre Vinokourov. Kloden is stronger, he's smarter, he's far, far better in long time trials and he's not as badly injured. The time he trails Rasmussen now is nothing when there are still two 50-plus kilometre time trials to go.
Alejandro Valverde - 2nd at 2-35
Rode strongly in the Alps to ghost ominously into second place. Not as good a climber as Rasmussen but his Caisse d'Epargne team is stronger, even with Vladimir Karpets having a bad Tour so far. Could easily take back the 2-35 he trails Rasmussen in the time trial at Albi and, with a 1-15 cushion over Kloden, could feasibly be in yellow when the Pyrenees begin.
Carlos Sastre - 7th at 3-39
Steady but unspectacular so far, the Spaniard is now CSC's main man after Frank Schleck's bad day on the road to Briancon. Sastre prefers the Pyrenees to the Alps and his time trialling skills are not as bad as many say. Will need to attack in the Pyrenees, though.
Michael Rasmussen - 1st
Can such an insular character cope with the prospect of defending the yellow jersey for a fortnight? Rasmussen often looks frightened of his own shadow and it's no surprise he excels when he leaves the rest behind and rides on solo in the mountains. Now he has to instruct his Rabobank team to work for him and he cannot sit anonymously in the bunch when he's feeling shy. The time trials are his biggest weakness so perhaps his only option is to attack again in the Pyrenees and try to take more time. He's not going to win the Tour by trying to defend his lead Lance-style.
Cadel Evans - 4th at 2-41
He's a nice bloke but an Evans win would mean a victory for wheel-suckers. He can follow the best of them all round France but that doesn't - nor shouldn't - win you the Tour. He had a little dig at the finish at Tignes and up to Briancon but outside of the final kilometre he rides as if he'll get a nosebleed if he goes near the front.
Alberto Contador - 5th at 3-08
On course to win the white jersey as best young rider now he leads Linus Gerdemann by 3-37. With Levi Leipheimer anonymous so far, Contador is now the bona fide leader of the Discovery Channel team and their best chance of making the top three. Can't time trial at all, though, so may slip down the general classification at Albi before bouncing back in the Pyrenees.
Christophe Moreau - 6th at 3-18
France got all excited on the rest day, pontificating about the chances of Moreau giving them a first Tour win since Bernard Hinault in 1985. The final kilometre up to Briancon gave us the answer. His legs locked up and he began to look every bit his 36 years. Can he cope with three extremely hard mountain stages?
Iban Mayo - 3rd at 2-39
Renaissance man Mayo is back to his 2004 best, it seems, after three years in the wilderness. He's certainly enjoyed a change of gear since joining Saunier Duval. Oddly enough it seems inevitable he'll have at least one bad day. Top five is still his limit.
Levi Leipheimer - 9th at 3-53
It's a competition between Leipheimer and Evans to win the least charismatic racer award. The problem for Levi is that he sits at the back of the group behind the one Evans is usually in.
Frank Schleck - 13th at 5-56
Matched the leaders at Tignes and looked destined to kick on from there but suffered a bad time on the Col du Galibier and finished in Vino's group, losing three minutes. That was the nail in the coffin for his hopes of winning the Tour - or even matching his brother Andy's Giro result - but he could regroup and attain a top ten place still.
Andrey Kashechkin - 12th at 5-34
Kash went from being Astana's best-placed rider to being the one left carrying Vinokourov - well, someone's got to pace him to Paris. We know Astana is being paid for by a consortium assembled by the Kazakh president but surely they should have been a bit quicker to realise that after his crash, backing Vinokourov is like sticking a tenner on dobbin for the Grand National.
Oscar Pereiro - 14th at 6-36
His role is now well defined - to help Valverde. Maybe as a result he'll sneak into the top ten.
Had a stinker at Briancon and that is that as far as his hopes of the podium go. Now has to watch his team-mate Rasmussen wear yellow, put aside all personal ambition and ride for the Dane.
With a pair of knees like his, Vino must be dreading the Pyrenees.
(Sorry!) Even in the face of amazing evidence suggesting that Vinokourov may not even make it to Paris, Andreas Kloden was saying that the Kazakh is still the leader. Much in the same way Tony Blair has been the leader of the Labour party for the past nine months. At his current rate, Vino could lose three minutes at Albi and another three each day in the Pyrenees.
First big favourite to bite the dust with a horrible climb to Tignes.
Helpful ally for his Caisse d'Epargne team-mate Valverde though.