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TdF’08: The Contenders!
Let’s get right to it, there are two big favorites on most people’s radars and a third that should be. Beyond that, it’ll take some folding, exploding, wrecking, and/or injuries to see anyone else to the top step of the podium.

Who am I talking about? Of course it’s Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde, and Denis Menchov.

Sure, the Schlecks have been patiently preparing all year, the same with the unseens in 2008 Carlos Sastre and Sammy Sanchez. There’s talk of Devolder or Kirchen maybe Zubeldia, but when it comes down to it, Evans, Valverde, and Menchov are the men to beat going into the first weekend of the 2008 Tour de France.

It’s hard to put Cadel Evans in front of Alejandro Valverde at the moment. Valverde seemed more than a match for Evans at the Dauphine. It is sometimes hard to tell exactly where two riders are on form at the Dauphine, as we’ve seen countless times, but it doesn’t seem like either was hitting that big whopping high point, so it’s probably a fair guess that we’ll see the same two at Le Tour.

With that in mind, Alejandro Valverde was more than a match for Cadel Evans. He stayed with him, even attacked him, in the mountains, and beat him by a fair margin in the time trial. Valverde also has a whole other facet to his game: he can race his bike. Valverde can legitimately win a non-time trial/mountain stage. He can get away late, he can attack, he can very nearly win a bunch kick against the best. He is dangerous. Evans can’t do that – or at least doesn’t do that. If the two are as evenly matched as they seem to be, Valverde could very well make the difference on any given stage – starting with etape une.

Evans has a certain something that Valverde does not, however: a spot on the podium. Evans came within 23 seconds of overall victory in last year’s Tour, and this year he is better than ever, with stages at Paris-Nice, Andalucia, Coppi e Bartali (oh and the overall), and then a solid Dauphine.

Evans seems to be immune to the jour sans, climbs with pretty much anybody (suffers for hours on end to do so), time trials with the best (and he very well might be the best), and has been good about staying out of trouble of late.

Valverde, on the other hand, is explosive, can win almost any stage, but is a little less consistent over three weeks compared to Evans, has two DNFs at Le Tour to his credit (one knee, one wreck), but when he’s on, he’s tough to keep hold of. I think he’s on.

Then there’s Denis Menchov, two-time Grand Tour winner, and 5th overall at the Giro just a month ago. Some people do the Dauphine or the Tour de Suisse as a tune-up, Denis Menchov does Grand Tours…and gets 5th, whilst racing wholly with his focus on the Tour de France. Menchov has every bit of what it takes to win the Tour de France: he climbs with pretty much anybody, time trials with the best, and for the most part has a knack for staying out of trouble – BUT he has been prone to bad days in the past.

If he races the way he did the Vuelta last year, can you honestly imagine anyone really getting the better of Mr. Menchov? He was truly dominant in last year’s final Grand Tour, and he seems poised to something like that again this July.

The Next Rung
If you’re looking for a rider that will be in the mix everyday, but never quite on top, look no further than Carlos Sastre. Sastre seems to have almost everything necessary to win a Grand Tour, emphasis on the almost though. Once again, he’ll be there, but he won’t win.

Sastre also has to contend with two budding hopefuls with the same last name within his own team: Andy and Frank Schleck. The Schleck brothers will indeed be Grand Tour winners at some point, maybe one of the two, maybe both, whatever. The question is whether that is now or not. I don’t think so. Again, I think they’ll be a big part of the race, but not the final Yellow Jersey. Both have looked excellent of late, Schleck the Elder even survived a horrific trip over the wall en route to what would have most likely been the Tour de Suisse overall, but still, I’m leery to give them favorite status over the first proven group of three.

There’s lots of jabber about Damiano Cunego’s chances at this year’s Tour de France. In a word, no. Lance Armstrong’s take on the Piccolo Principe is right: he’s a great rider, but he’s not a Tour winner. There isn’t much in the way of time trials in this Tour de France, but there are still 85ish km of solo bikin to be done, and that’s a lot. Cunego is a great climber, just like Sastre, or the Schlecks, but he’s not THAT much better if any bit better than an Evans or Valverde or even Menchov. Top Five sure, maybe even podium, but he ain’t your winner.

One guy who might be worth a bit of the hype? I think Samuel Sanchez is well worth the hype. Sanchez is not terribly consistent, but when he’s on, he’s sensational. He rode an insanely good final week of the Vuelta last year, after only an ok start. He can climb, time trial, even sprint.

Sanchez is part of an excellent Euskaltel team that includes perennial Tour sorta there man: Haimar Zubeldia. Zubeldia is a great bike racer, obviously, anyone inside the top 10 at Le Tour is icredible, but he never seems to get any attention. Just a look at the Cor Vos archives, and there is nary a picture of the solid Basque rider. He won’t win, but he will definitely be part of an Euskaltel onslaught with Sanchez and Astarloza.

Speaking of climbers, since you can’t much talk about Euskaltel without thinking MOUNTAIN, one rider that comes to mind in the same fashion? Mauricio Soler. Soler returns to the Tour in hopes of repeating his mountain success of 2007, and probably has hopes of bigger and better on the GC. It’s possible, but look for some more breaks and lots of mountain point accumulations from the young rider.

One more name worth mentioning, just based on the attention and the fact that Lance gave him his personal backing as a Tour hopeful: Stijn Devolder. Devolder is a supreme time trialist and looks to be getting better and better uphill. Seen a picture of him recently? He’s lost some considerable weight since his Flanders victory earlier this year. He has been relatively quiet, save for a stomping he gave everyone at the Tour of Belgium, but that’s not quite the Tour prep race. He was an also-ran at the Tour de Suisse and looked nothing less than disappointing, but that could be a good sign. Maybe.

We’d be remiss if we spoke of the Tour de France without mentioning the French hopes: Christophe Moreau, Sandy Casar, and Cyril Dessel. All are vaunted as the French GC possibilities, but none have a chance in Hades of the win…unless they get the break of a lifetime a la Oscar Pereiro. I have little else to say about the three, except that one will surely win a stage, one might briefly flirt with the overall, but none will be on the podium.

After these riders, I really think we’re reaching for inspiration. They’re still worth a look, but not so much in the word department, so here are a few worth watching, maybe they’ll surprise:

I refuse to call Ricco a possibility at the Tour de France yet. He could very well win a stage, but I don’t think he’ll finish.

Vincenzo Nibali

Tadej Valjavec can go uphill with the best of em.

Roman Kreuziger made an instant name for himself when he won the Tour de Suisse. He could definitely continue his surprising 2008 in France.

Yes, for once, I am trying to actually state some opinions, so at least you’ll remember, oh that Jered guy, he was SO off about Ricco. Look, he not only finished, he won.

My prediction for the top 5:

1. Menchov
2. Valverde
3. Evans
4. Sanchez
5. Schleck one or the other’s Odds
Evans 3.25
Valverde 5.00
Menchov 8.50
A. Schleck 10.00
Cunego 12.00
Sastre 18.00
Zubeldia 20.00
Devolder 25.00
Kirchen 25.00
Sanchez 25.00
Kreuziger 28.00
Ricco 30.00
Pereiro 40.00
F. Schleck 40.00
Moreau 60.00
Cancellara 80.00
Astarloza 80.00
Dessel 80.00

Unibet’s Green Jersey Odds
Hushovd 3.50
Freire 3.75
McEwen 5.00
Zabel 11.00
Hunter 13.00
Cavendish 15.00
Steegmans 25.00
Ciolek 30.00

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