After a very interesting first day in the Pyrenees, the battle for the top step of the Tour de France podium has only just begun. Andy Schleck holds a tenuous lead over Alberto Contador, but the 30 seconds he is ahead aren't enough to ensure a Tour win by the end of the race. The Luxembourgian will have to find a way to take time in the coming stages as he sets the stage for a tense final time trial toward the end of the Tour.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
For the rest of the contenders, there are fewer and fewer threats to Contador and Schleck, not to mention third place. Bradley Wiggins is gone from the top of the classification, and salvaging a top 20 ride will be a task in itself for the philosophical Brit. In fact, after losing an additional 5 minutes to the leaders, he now sits better than 11 minutes behind Schleck, in 18th place overall. Should he continue to experience poor performances in the high mountains (which looks likely), he could find himself out of the top 20 come Paris. Either way, his confident talk ahead of the Tour has been replaced with resignation that his 2009 ride was perhaps a fluke and his 2010 season can now officially be called a bust.
Other riders who struggled to hold on to the front of the peloton in stage 14 were Ivan Basso, Romain Kreuziger, Carlos Sastre, Levi Leipheimer, Cadel Evans and Mick Rogers. In fact, unless something strange happens, all of the above riders are out of contention for a podium appearance. Now there are only a few riders battling for third place heading into the Tour's final week.
Foremost among the third place competitors is Denis Menchov. Using the Contador/Schleck duel to his advantage in stage 14, Menchov shot off the front of the main group on the final climb and was able to take back a handful of seconds on the two leading riders. He now sits at 2:44 off the pace, just behind Sammy Sanchez, who also has ridden brilliantly in this year's Tour. Between Sanchez and Menchov, it is probably Menchov who has the best chance of making the podium. He is improving by the day and will probably launch more attacks over the final few mountain stages. He'll also likely ride a strong time trial, or at least stronger than Sanchez.
Before the Tour began, it looked like an open competition. There were more than ten legitimate threats for the overall, and each of them looked primed for a run at the coveted Tour title. But as the days passed, crashes, bad luck and plain poor form doomed many of the Tour hopefuls, leaving us with only four riders left in the race with a legit shot at taking the title. As the brutal final week continues to unfold, it will be interesting to see if either Menchov or Sanchez can thwart the Schleck/Contador duo. Equally interesting is the one-on-one duel that is developing between Contador and Schleck. Neither of them seem capable of dropping the other on the climbs, and so it looks likely that the Tour will come down to the final time trial on stage 19.