REFRESHING CALM. All has been relatively quiet before the start of the 2008 Tour de France. No major doping revelations. No last-minute suspensions. Sniping between professional cycling sanctioning and doping oversight authorities has subsided for the moment. After the last two years, it's refreshing to get to this point to be able to talk about the race and cyclists in positive terms. The "Tour Depart" is tomorrow, July 5. Hope you will be able to follow it on TV or on the Internet.
NO PROLOGUE. For the first time in over 30 years, the Tour de France will not start with a time-trial Prologue. Instead of the usual time trial to set up an initial time separation between the riders, Stage 1 takes the cyclists 197.5 kilometers (that's 122.7 miles) from Brest to Plumelec and over four Category 4 climbs. The finish in Plumelec (hometown of Tour de France legend Bernard Hinault) is an uphill climb known locally as the "Breton Alpe d'Huez,"--named for the monster mountain climb that has challenged cyclists time and again.
THERE WILL BE A NEW CHAMPION. No cyclist has yet taken the place of Lance Armstrong, who could be named the hands-down pre-tour favorite to win the overall classification Yellow Jersey every year after his first win. No one since has emerged with such dominance. And since last year's Tour de France champion Alberto Contador is now riding for a team (Astana) which Tour de France organizers suspended for a year after it was kicked out of last year's tour for doping, there WILL be a new champion this year. American Levi Leipheimer, who finished 3rd in last year's Tour also now rides for Astana and he, too, will miss this year's event.
[And, yes, I think the suspension of Astana is unfair, since the entire team leadership and most of the team is new, and since the decision to suspend Astana from the 2008 Tour de France was made AFTER Contador and Leipheimer, along with team director and former Lance Armstrong director Johann Bruyneel, joined the team as part of its rebirth. If Astana is out, why is Rabbobank in? Answer me that!]
FAVORITE: CADEL EVANS. While no racer seems ready to dominate, there is a favorite to win the Yellow Jersey. It's Australian Cadel Evans (in photo) who placed 2nd last year, just a few seconds behind Contador. Evans has the right combination of climbing ability, time trial skills, and a strong and supportive team to win it. Does he have the explosive power and ego strength to assert leadership? Yet to be seen. Should he win, he'd be the first Aussie Tour de France champ.
FOUR MORE. Evans isn't alone, however, as a top contender to win this year's edition of the Tour. Alejandro Valverde of Spain, Damiano Cunego of Italy, and Denis Menchov of Russia are easily conceivable as leader/winners. All three have the complete combination of developed skills, demonstrated leadership and wins in multiple-stage races and the savvy necessary to win the race. Some pundits also include Spaniard Carlos Sastre in the mix, but Sastre has never made a serious move in the Tour de France.
UP FOR GRABS. Cyclingnews' sub-headline reads: "Unknown predators could swoop in on Paris prize." I think they're right. Reading through the list of riders, I recognize many who have ridden the Tour de France, Vuelta Espana, and Giro d'Italia in past years, sometimes with flares of brilliance. I wouldn't be surprised if some of these, like Christophe Moreau of France, make a move to lead or win. It's up for grabs and that, along with the Tour's daily dramatic twists and turns and boiling sub-plots, will make for a very interesting race.