Tour Contenders Narrow to Two

It’s so close you can almost taste it.  July in France.  Le Tour.  Yellow jerseys.  Late nights. Gate and his cheese.  The month of the year when everyone suddenly talks about bikes.

There’s added interest this year of course.  Cadel Evans triumph last year captured the imagination, with over a million Australians watching in the wee hours, all the papers putting a bike rider from Katherine on the front page, and thousands lining the streets of Melbourne to welcome him home.  Add to this Australia’s own team Orica-GreenEDGE, making a Tour debut, and you feel that this will be the biggest one yet from an Aussie perspective.

But on the bike, the race looks more and more likely to come down to a battle between two riders.  Evans goes in as second favourite to Brit Bradley Wiggins, having the season of his life.  Third favourite? At this stage, Daylight.

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Wiggins dominance in 2012 is total.  He took out Paris-Nice in March.  disappeared into training camps, returned in April to dominate the Tour of Romandie.  Took off again to Team Sky’s high altitude camp on the Canary Islands, and has bossed the field in the Dauphine, the classic barometre of Tour form.  Wiggins has looked in control amongst a strong Sky unit on the climbs, and crushed a top quality field in the Time Trial, to take the yellow.

Evans, in contrast, has had a difficult time of things in 2012.  Illness has blighted his campaign after early season success in Corsica at the Criterium International.  He was, by his own admission below par at two of his pet events, Tirreno-Adriatico and Romandie.  But this week Evans has shown that he is on the right track.

Victory on Stage 1, and time taken on the downhills prove that Evans is physically strong, and is mentally fresh.  The time trial performance was not terrible, but suffered in comparison to Wiggins.  There’s room for improvement there.

The other contenders are not faring so well.  Vincenzo Nibali has been touted as a podium shot, but the Italian had a poor Tour of California, and was dropped early on the major climb of the Dauphine.  Major improvement is required.

It’s been a bad few weeks for the experienced riders. Basso blew at the Giro as did Frank Schleck.  Chris Horner lost his California Crown, Dennis Menchov has barely been sighted at the Dauphine and Sammy Sanchez crashed and struggled on.  Vuelta Champ Cobo also pulled the pin early.  Over at The Shack, Andreas Kloden hasn’t ridden much and at Omega-Pharma Levi Leipheimer is on the comeback path from a broken leg.

Things look brighter amongst the next generation.  Robert Gesink produced a stellar ride on Mount Baldy to claim the California crown, and his Rabobank team boast two more young guns in Bauke Mollema and the hugely impressive Wilco Kelderman.  Gesink was a major let down in last years Tour suffering from injury and mental fatigue, but the signs are, the young Dutchman is ready to take the next step.

Over at Lotto-Belisol, there’s quiet optimism over the form of Jurgen Van Den Broeck, who has been in the lead group at the Dauphine all week.  The Belgian was a casualty of the early carnage last year but looks ready to take a top 5 spot.

And then there’s Andy. Andy Schleck should be a favourite.  The, now, 2010 Tour winner, and multiple runner up is in the prime of his career, let things at Radioshack are not good.  There talk all year long has been of a fall out between the Schlecks and the man expected to take them to the next level, new DS Johan Bruyneel.  Bruyneel himself has thrown out various incendiary comments to the media about the Schlecks.  Whether these were designed to motivate them or not, the effect has been disasterous.

Andy’s form is atrocious.  He has abandoned three of his nine races this season, and failed to crack the top hundred during his seven active stages of the Dauphine.  There was a crash and talk of a knee problem but all is not well in the Schleck camp.

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While physical ailments are the public excuse, it appears that its a fragile mind rather than body that is taking it’s toll on Andy.  From the very public criticism of his time trialling from all and sundry, to Bruyneel’s barbs, to the idea of tackling the Tour without his favourite DS Kim Andersen in the car, Andy appears to be falling apart mentally.  As exhilarating a climber as there is anywhere, Schleck version 2012, is a shadow of his former self.

There are even suggestions that Radioshack will head to the Tour without the brothers who, essentially, created the team.  Unthinkable a few months ago, with just three weeks to go, it seems very possible that Bruyneel will build his GC team around Kloden, Horner and Fuglsang. Personally I think the Schlecks will start in Liege, but it would be a miracle to see either on the podium in Paris.  whatever happens over the next 3 weeks, I’m expecting a messy divorce later this year.

Which brings us back to the start.  Evans versus Wiggins.  BMC versus Sky.  Australia versus Britain.  Wiggins is in the form to win the Tour.  Evans probably isn’t.  But where will each rider be in 5 weeks?  Can Wiggo hold this phenomenal form right through to Paris?  We know that Evans can, and will build over the next few weeks.

The course suits both in a way.  Wiggins will take big time on Cadel in the TT’s, but there are enough short steep finishes, and dizzying descents for Evans to claim time, much as he did in last years race and this week’s Dauphine.

And then there are the teams.  Team Sky have resembled US Postal this week with a crushing display of strength at the head of the peloton.  But next month they may be compromised by the inclusion of Mark Cavendish.  Expect Cav and Bernie Eisel to join the core of the Dauphine squad.  This is a complication BMC don’t have, now that Thor Hushovd has ruled himself out of the race.  BMC, Phillippe Gilbert and all, will ride for Evans 100%.

Whatever happens, the emergence of Wiggins as favourite will change the dynamic of the race.  Every other team have to attack if they want to win the race.  If it comes down to the final Time Trial, then Wiggins will take the crown.  It promises to be an exhilarating three weeks.

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