From Bordeaux to Pauillac: the race of truth for the 2010 Tour de France
This year's Tour de France has been marked by intense rivalry between Alberto Contador of Team Astana, and Andy Schleck of Team Saxo Bank. Throughout the Tour, Contador has riden defensively in the mountains, following the accelerations of Andy Schleck. The current time gap between the two riders is a combination of Contador's (relative) strength in the Prologue on July 3, Frank Schleck's crash in the cobblestones on July 6, and Andy Schleck's mechanical on July 19. The mountains have done little to shake up the battle between the top two riders. As a result, the final general classification for the 2010 Tour de France will be determined by the individual time trial on Saturday.
The current situation strongly favours the reigning champion, Alberto Contador. Contador has demonstrated himself to be an exceptional time trialist, as well as a powerful climber, over recent years. In fact, his riding style in 2010 has begun to closely resemble that of former cycling champion, Miguel Indurain. In the 2010 season, Contador's focus has been on the time trial. His victory in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon was the direct result of his strengths as a time trialist, whereas his defeat in the Criterium du Dauphine Libere was due to his poor performance in the long time trial.
Over the past few days, Contador has re-iterated his change in focus and stated his intentions to put a stamp in his overall lead in the individual time trial on Saturday. Without a stage win so far, his goal will be to win the stage from Bordeaux to Pauillac. This will not be easy with time trial specialists like Fabian Cancellara and Tony Martin. But with the controversy surrounding his overall lead, the burden will be on Contador to prove that he's worthy of winning his third Tour de France and fifth Grand Tour.
Despite being the elite time trial champion of Luxembourg, Andy Schleck is at best a mediocre time trialist. With experts predicting Saturday's time trial to last over 64 minutes, Schleck will just have to make sure someone like Dennis Menchov doesn't gain a 4-minute lead over him, a highly unlikely outcome. The likelihood of Schleck overtaking his 8-second deficit on Contador is just as improbable. However, it is the Tour de France, and the unpredictable has been known to happen.
But more realistically, Schleck's main responsibility will be to hold his own in the time trial, and not let Contador gain too much of a lead in the general classification.
With only a 21-second lead over Dennis Menchov, Samuel Sanchez, the champion of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Road Race, will have to ride a great time trial to hold on to his place on the podium. Considering his exceptional time trial performance in the Vuelta a Espana last year, Sanchez should be able to hang on to his lead. However, the injury to his sternum may lead to a surprise.
Despite having won the Giro d'Italia once and the Vuelta a Espana twice, Dennis Menchov has always been classified as a second-tier Grand Tour contender, behind riders like Carlos Sastre and Cadel Evans. A podium finish in this year's Tour might change this perspective, and this will require Menchov to make up his deficit on Sanchez in the time trial. However, third place may be determined more by the effects of Sanchez's crash on his performance than by Menchov's strengths as a time trialist.