Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Le Tour de France 2007 - Stage 9 - Vino vanishes, Soler wins

Well, not quite vanishes, but drops back a long way. In taking this stage Soler has certainly stolen a big win for Barloworld. The stage itself was made for an attack like this one. Indeed it's a hard way to start a day's racing - straight up - and it puts a breaking strain on immediately. In a small way it reminds me of stage 3 of the 1987 Canberra 2 day Tour (how's that for a comparison?): 100m of flat followed by a kilometre of 10% climb. Doesn't sound like much until you realise you aren't as warmed up as you should be and those legs of yours (or mine, actually) just aren't doing the job today. You end up chasing all day and never getting on terms.

At least it simplifies team tactics. If Astana don't have to protect Vinokourov then they can devote more attention to getting Kloden close to the lead on GC, where he stands a good chance of taking the overall. He's only 3 minutes 50 seconds back, after all. Yeah, OK, I'm dreaming. They should have stopped protecting Vino 2 days earlier...

So who really has a chance from here?

Well Rasmussen is well placed, obviously (as would Michael Rogers have been if he hadn't tumbled out). He isn't a strong TT rider like Rogers and he's taken the lead a long way out, so he'll want now to capitalise and bank another minute or 2 on the others as a buffer; and he now has the added pressure of countering every serious move . He may wait for Valverde or Evans to move first and just keep on terms until the Pyrenees - although that long TT will test his mettle, so gaining time in the climbs remains critical.

Alejandro Valverde has demonstrated so far both patience and attacking flair. But again we are a long way from Paris. He won't want to see his 2m 35secs gap to the Dane grow, so he'll stay in touch, and probably attack he sees a clear opportunity. He won't want Evans to come along for the ride, either. And he won't want to exhaust his reserves before the TT, so patience will be a necessary virtue.

Iban Mayo is another 4secs back on Alejandro, but poses no TT threat to anyone here. But everyone knows this and will expect to see him attack in the high stuff. So they'll tag along but be prepared to let him gain some time, too.

Not so with Cadel Evans, just a couple of seconds behind Mayo. He can climb and do a decent TT - and has won shorter tours by playing exactly this waiting game. He's one rider who Valverde will fear in the TT and will want to drop in the mountains. Staying with Valverde's attacks will be a prime goal for Cadel, but he needs to be looking to limit Rasmussen's gains too.

In the mix is Alberto Contador. If he's let off the leash by Disco then he's a real overall contender. Christophe Moreau is next and is the great French hope. He's certainly looking good for top 5-10 at this stage. Carlos Sastre and Andreas Kloden are 3mins 50 secs back from the lead Chicken and whilst either - and especially Kloden - could pull off a blindingly fast TT this is a big ask. They must not lose more time and need to gain time in order to have a shot at the yellow in Paris.

I'd say Levi Leipheimer is too far back, but again he can climb and can TT, he just doesn't seem to want to demonstrate it yet. He could be waiting for the right moment, but there are a lot of riders to pass on the way to Paris. Disco could play a counter-punching game with Levi and Alberto, so gaining big time in a brazen attack is certainly possible.

I wouldn't be surprised to see Kirchen, Astarloza, Kashechkin and Schleck making some moves over the next week, too. They have nothing to lose but plenty to gain. And Oscar Pereiro will be helping his own cause as well as teammate Valverde's with the old one-two act in the remaining mountains. And they are big mountains too with minutes to be gained.