Contenders Shuffle One More Time

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Oh, how quickly things change at the Tour de France. Yesterday, even by Lance Armstrong’s estimation, Floyd Landis was the odds-on favorite to ride into Paris in yellow. Tonight he’s more than eight minutes behind after cracking on the final climb of Stage 16 to La Toussuire. And a week ago, Oscar Pereiro started Stage 13 more than 28 minutes behind in the overall classification and finished with the yellow jersey. Now, after losing it for a day, he’s back in it again! As I said in yesterday’s update, you have to take full advantage of every opportunity to gain time on your rivals in case you, or they, have a bad day later on.

So, what now? Landis tumbled so far down the overall classification that it’s highly unlikely he’ll challenge for the yellow jersey again. If he ran out of energy today because he didn’t eat or drink enough, then he could recover overnight and return to riding very well tomorrow. However, eight minutes is a lot to make up, especially this late in the race when no one’s willing to let any potentially dangerous racer simply ride away to victory. With a stellar performance tomorrow, Landis could retake two minutes of his losses, and then possibly another two in Saturday’s 57-kilometer individual time trial. Yet, even if everything goes his way from now through end of the race, a top-five finish is about the best he can look forward to.

Oscar Pereiro has a legitimate chance of winning the Tour de France now, which is something no one would have readily admitted to at the start of the race on July 1. True, the Spanish rider finished tenth in the 2004 and 2005 editions of the race, but his performances earlier this year didn’t indicate he’d have such great form at the Tour de France. Nevertheless, he’s in the yellow jersey and he’s not just barely hanging on to it. He looked very strong all day today, even after Carlos Sastre attacked on La Toussuire and T-Mobile went to the front of the group to push the pace and drop Landis. At the end of the stage, he had the energy to sprint away from Cadel Evans and Andreas Kloden for a few meters, and he was one of the only riders who didn’t look shattered as he came across the finish line. If he can perform well tomorrow in the final day in the mountains, he’ll have a chance to win in Paris, but he’s not a great time trial rider and might need a bit more of a lead over Kloden, Sastre, and Evans going into Saturday’s test against the clock.

Speaking of the challengers to Pereiro’s yellow jersey:

Carlos Sastre has been hinting that he might have a Grand Tour win in his legs for the past few years, but he’s never been given free rein to go for it. Now he has the chance and seems to have great form as well. He’s not a great rider against the clock, though, so he’ll need to keep riding aggressively to gain time in the one remaining mountain stage.

Cadel Evans is actually beginning to look stronger as the mountain stages keep ticking by. Perhaps tomorrow he’ll feel good enough to ride aggressively and move up the leader board. He’s a good rider against clock and could move up a place or two in the final time trial as well.

Andreas Kloden looks strong as well, as does his T-Mobile team. The German rider is probably the greatest threat to win the 2006 Tour de France now because he’s a better time trial rider than any of the other men in the top five. If he can use his very strong team to help him get within 1:30 of the yellow jersey before the time trial, he stands a good chance of taking the lead the day before the race enters Paris.

Denis Menchov is fading fast and will be looking forward to getting out of the Alps. He’s a good time trial rider, though, and could ride himself into the top five by Paris.

And the really mysterious rider who’s still in contention is Cyril Dessel from the AG2R-Prevoyance team. The man who rode himself into the yellow jersey by finishing nine minutes ahead of the peloton in Stage 10 is out-riding everyone’s expectations and is still sitting in fourth place overall. He may not be a favorite for moving back up into the top three, but unless he completely implodes like Landis did today, he should be able to stay in the top five, and at the very least the top ten overall.

If Oscar Pereiro wins the 2006 Tour de France, there will be a lot of riders and team directors kicking themselves about letting him recoup a 28-minute deficit with one breakaway performance in Stage 13. But there’s still plenty of racing left, and as we’ve seen so many times this year, anything can happen.

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