First, this Tour started with doping controversy. The two big favorites, Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso, were suspended from racing due to connections with a doctor under investigation for providing cyclists with performance-enhancing drugs. So the field was thinned from the start, which left the Tour wide-open and ready to be taken by whoever wanted to step up. The main riders designated to take Lance Armstrong’s place at the top were gone.
The “contending” field for the overall was reduced to a few riders:
1. Floyd Landis (USA). Team Phonak. A former Armstrong teammate who was thought to be the pre-Tour favorite once Basso and Ullrich went out. Strong in the mountains and very strong in the time trials.
2. Alejandro Valverde (ESP). Team Caisse d’Epargne. He crashed out of the Tour in the first week.
3. Andreas Kloden (GER). Team T-Mobile. He replaced Jan Ullrich as the team leader after Ullrich was suspended.
4. Denis Menchov (RUS). Team Rabobank. The winner of the 2005 Vuelta and a former winner of the Tour’s best young rider jersey, kind of an equivalent to “rookie of the year.”
5. Cadel Evans (AUS). Team Davitamon Lotto. A strong rider, but possibly just not strong enough to win the overall Tour. A very likely top 10 finisher with an outside shot at a title.
6. Carlos Sastre (ESP). Team CSC. Ivan Basso was supposed to be the leader of CSC, but with his suspension, Sastre was promoted to being the CSC rider to go for the Tour victory.
7. Levi Leipheimer (USA). Team Gerolsteiner. He won the 2006 Dauphine, a key Tour warm-up stage race. But he’s never stepped up in the Tour to look like a true podium contender, he’s a consistent 8th-15th place guy.
8. Iban Mayo (ESP). Team Euskatel-Euskadi. A former podium contender, he’s been off his best form the last few years. He showed some promise with some good rides earlier in the season, thereby getting people’s hopes up. But he was never thought to be a real threat to win the overall.
That’s about it for the real contenders. Here’s where they’re at now while nearing the end of the Tour.
1. Landis – The favorite to win the overall, despite being in 3rd with only one meaningful stage to go. The reason is that the last meaningful stage is a time trial, a discipline in which he excels. He’s only 30 seconds out of the yellow jersey.
2. Valverde – Crashed out early breaking his collarbone.
3. Kloden – He’s in 4th going into the time trial, but he’s about 2 minutes behind Landis in 3rd. Has a chance at a podium spot if he time trials well.
4. Menchov – He’s sitting in 6th, about 3:45 behind Landis and out of contention to win the overall. He’s put together a solid race, but he just hasn’t been strong enough consistently throughout the mountains to put any time into his opponents. He did win a stage in the Pyrenees, but Landis was right on his wheel and didn’t lose any time. While a solid time trialist, he isn’t anything special like an Armstrong or an Indurain.
5. Evans – In 5th behind Kloden and ahead of Menchov. He’s riden a Tour much like Menchov. Solid, but not strong enough to attack and put time into his rivals at key points. He’s been put into difficulty on a few occasions, but he recovered well each time and managed to lose minimal time. Probably can’t get onto the podium.
6. Sastre – In 2nd. 18 seconds ahead of Landis and 12 seconds behind the yellow jersey. He might be able to hold on to win with the time trial of his life, but he’s likely going to finish 2nd in Paris to Landis. That is still a major accomplishment for someone only recently promoted to team leader and it’s a great result for CSC after the Basso controversy.
7. Leipheimer – Was out of real contention after a disastrous time trial in the first week, but he recovered well in the mountains to climb back into the top 10. Somewhat collapsed in the Alps, but is still holding on to a top 20 position in the tour.
8. Mayo – Completely cracked as soon as the Tour went uphill in the Pyrenees and he abandoned the Tour soon after. It looks like any chance he ever had of a podium finish in Paris is now over — his Tour career is basically shot barring an amazing comeback. Maybe he’ll be able to recover and ride well in the Vuelta in September.
The Tour has been really up and down. For weeks, it looked as if Landis was going to take the Tour just by time trialing well and not letting anyone put any time into him in the mountains. That looked like it was going to work when the Tour rode into Alpe D’Huez, a famed Tour ascent. Then the next day, for whatever reason, Landis was weak. He was riding poorly through the whole stage, but he finally cracked on the final climb of Stage 16 at La Toussuire. In a disastrous 10 km or so, he slipped out of the top 10 and was over 8 minutes behind the yellow jersey of Oscar Pereiro (a surprise leader who won’t hold on to the jersey in the time trial).
You can see the profile of that ride below:
As you can see, it’s just a beast. The whole day is either ascending or descending and the final climb managed to do Landis in. Everyone basically gave him up for dead, but they’d forgotten that anything can happen and that there was one more Alpine stage for Landis to make up ground.
While no one could have predicted what happened, Landis went out on the attack early in Stage 17, leaving behind all his rivals on the first climb, the Col de Saisies. You can see the profile below:
Incredibly, he rode virtually on his own (he did tow one rider for much of the way) from that first mountain all the way to the finish in Morzine. The final climb, the Col de Joux-Plane, is an incredible mountain. It’s something like 12 km at an average gradient of 8.5%. That’s very steep. You can tell by looking at the profile how quickly it kicks up. Anyway, Landis managed to hold off the entire field and win the stage by over 5 minutes, an eternity for a 100+ km breakaway in the mountains. He got himself back to where he sits now in the overall standings. It’s now being regarded as one of, if not the, greatest single day ride in modern Tour history. He’s in the driver’s seat to win the Tour if he can put together a strong time trial. And it all happens live tomorrow morning on OLN (Outdoor Life Network). They’ll be replaying it throughout the day.
Here is the time trial profile:
I highly encourage everyone to take at least a few minutes to watch the last 90 minutes of time trial coverage as it will be very exciting to see the overall contenders battle it out for the yellow jersey for the final celebratory ride into Paris.