Sunday, July 24, 2005
10 to Watch for TdF 2006
AN IMPERFECT INSPIRATION. I am sorry to see the Lance Armstrong era end, but glad it ended so well. I want the podium scene in Paris to linger long in my mind's eye. I wish Lance the best for his future. Lance is imperfect; he is, admittedly, flawed (as extended and extensive public scrutiny has revealed). He is also an inspiration--to me and to many. I am convinced his biggest challenges in life--greater than overcoming cancer and greater than winning the Tour de France seven times--lie ahead of him.
WHO NEXT YEAR? But even as the sun sets on Paris and the 2005 Tour de France, I begin to wonder who will emerge as next year's champion? Here's my earliest possible "short list" of riders I will be paying close attention to throughout the rest of the year that is not consumed by the Tour:
1. IVAN BASSO. Best young rider in 2003, third last year, second this year. He's the total package. This son of Italy may well ascend the next step of the Paris podium 365 days from now.
2. JAN ULLRICH. As Jean Valjean tells the one who would condemn him: "There's power in me yet; my race is not yet run." Ullrich won the Tour de France in 1997 at the age of 23. The German was heir apparent to the Miguel Indurain legacy. This was to be his era, but there was this unforeseen interruption named Lance Armstrong. Ullrich is no mere "also ran." This man is a proud champion. He will be motivated to win the Tour at least one more time before he, like Armstrong, retires.
3. ALEXANDRE VINOKOUROV. Winner of two 2005 TdF stages, a past podium finisher, constant attacker in the mountains, solid time trialist, resilient, persistent, tenacious. Vino, the current Kazakstan cycling champion, will be creating Tour de France fireworks for several years to come. But how will the pursuer lead?
4. LEVI LEIPHEIMER. This American hopeful rides consistently well in all formats, leads the German-based Gerolstiner team, and finished 6th this year. Just once I'd like to see something explosive from Leipheimer. That's not his style, but if Leipheimer is to make the podium in Paris, it seems to me that he is going to have to break out and breakthrough a barrier is now before him.
5. FLOYD LANDIS. This was Landis' first year out from under the thumb of Lance Armstrong and the American rode well, placing 9th overall. He's a great climber and a better time trialist. I don't know whether or not he is a motivating and inspirational team leader. He should be moving up toward a podium finish over the next two years. Maybe Armstrong's apparent insults about him could be grist for the edge to win. I hope so.
6. DAVID ZABRISKIE. He proved he's a great time trialist, like Lance. We didn't get to see Zabriski in the mountains, as he crashed spectacularly in the stage 4 team time trial and had to retire with injuries a few days later. If Zabriskie can avoid injury, he's an up-and-coming American to watch for.
7. ALEJANDRO VALVERDE. After watching the way Valverde all but effortlessly seemed to match LA on the climb to Corchevel, I thought he would be on the podium this year. But he crashed and had to retire from the race. This Spaniard reminds some experts of Miguel Indurain. He may be the next thing.
8. DAMIANO CUNEGO. This young Italian ruled the Giro d'Italia in 2004, overshadowing his team leader Gilberto Simoni. He was injured in this year's Giro and suffered mononucleosis afterward, so he was not at the Tour de France. If he's in the mix next year, he's got the right stuff to win it.
9. CADEL EVANS. Let's put an Aussie in the mix. Evans impressed me in this year's Tour. On the basis of an attack and breakway in a mountain stage, he climbed to an 8th-place finish in Paris today. He's shown prowess in the mountains and he has an attacking capability. He does relatively well in time trials, but he is not currently his team leader. It seems to me that somebody needs to invest in this opportunistic and excellent talent and cultivate a Tour de France champion. Johann, are you listening?
10. PICK ONE: SAVOLDELLI, HINCAPIE, POPOVYCH, OR DANIELSON. These four are all Discovery Channel potential team leaders in the post-Lance era. All are capabale of podium finishes:
- Italian Paolo Savoldelli won this year's Giro d'Italia (and one previously) and a stage in this TdF.
- American George Hincapie has paid his dues and proven himself, trialing well and winning the hardest mountain stage of this year's tour.
- Russian Yaroslav Popovych won the best young rider's jersey in this year's tour and was recruited by Discovery Channel as its future.
- American Tom Danielson did not ride this year's TdF due to injury, but he won the toughest race on this side of the pond--the Tour de Georgia--and should be cultivated as a Tour contender.
AMERICANS IN THE TOUR. Hmmm... I can't believe all the great riders I've left out of the top ten to watch for '06. Obviously, my list leans toward Americans (that's just my hopeful prejudice, I guess). An aside: I think the Tour de France needs to have a growing contingent of Americans, not just as Tour contenders, but as a domestiques. Until and unless American riders are willing to pay their dues in the peloton, it seems to me that European team leaders will be unwilling to put them forward as team leaders. Tyler Hamilton and Levi Leipheimer have shown their ability to lead European-based teams. But both of these guys have proven themselves as faithful and capable domestiques. It doesn't seem to be part of the American cyclist psyche to just serve as a domestique, however; the Americans tend to want to prove themselves in the peloton quickly and then expect to move into leadership.
And Floyd Landis did finish in the top 10. He actually finished 9th overall. That made 3 Americans in the top 10. Not a bad showing.
I was disappointed to hear Armstrong, in the CBS interview with Armand K., to respond very quickly and matter-of-factly "no" to the question of whether or not he felt like there was an American who could/would win the Tour in the near future. Was he serious? Or just baiting his fellow Americans?