Whether you are a novice to the sport of cycling or a diehard fan, it always helps to go into a race with a clear understanding of how it works, who is participating and who are the main contenders for each classification... and perhaps even what a classification might be in the first place! So here's a quick breakdown of this year's Tour de France field...
- Stage 1: Brest to Plumelec - 197.5 km
- Stage 2: Auray to Saint-Brieuc - 164.5 km
- Stage 3: Saint-Malo to Nantes - 208.0 km
- Stage 4: Cholet to Cholet (time trial) - 29.5 km
- Stage 5: Cholet to Chateauroux - 232.0 km
- Stage 6: Aigurande to Super-Besse - 195.5 km
- Stage 7: Brioude to Aurillac - 159.0 km
- Stage 8: Figeac to Toulouse - 172.5 km
- Stage 9: Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Bigorre - 224.0 km
- Stage 10: Pau to Hautacam - 156.0 km
- Stage 11: Lannemezan to Foix - 167.5 km
- Stage 12: Lavelanet to Narbonne - 168.5 km
- Stage 13: Narbonne to Nimes - 182.0 km
- Stage 14: Nimes to Digne-les-Bains - 194.5 km
- Stage 15: Embrun to Prato Nevoso (Italy) - 183.0 km
- Stage 16: Cuneo (Italy) to Jausiers - 157.0 km
- Stage 17: Embron to L'Alpe d'Huez - 210.5 km
- Stage 18: Bourg-d'Oisans to Saint-Etienne - 196.5 km
- Stage 19: Roanne to Montlucon - 165.5 km
- Stage 20: Cerilly to Saint-Amand-Montrond (time trial) - 53.0 km
- Stage 21: Etampes to Paris (Champs-Elysees) - 143.0 km
WHAT IS ON THE LINE?
There are five main awards for which riders compete:
General Classification -- Maillot Jaune/Yellow Jersey
This is the big one, the one people most recognize in the Tour de France. The yellow jersey is the person with the lowest accumulated time from all stages raced to that point. The winner of the final jersey in Paris, having done the entire race in the lowest time of the field, wins 450,000 Euros (about $700,000)...
Points Classification -- Maillot Vert/Green Jersey
The green jersey is awarded to the rider who is best-placed in each daily stage. Points are awarded at the finish of the stage and at intermediate points along the ride depending on where riders are positioned. The rider with the highest accumulated points from these sprint zones wears the maillot vert. Here is a breakdown of how points are awarded:
- Flat stages: 35, 30, 26, 24, 22, 20, 19, 18, 17, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2 and 1 points are awarded to the first 25 riders across the finish
- Medium-mountain stages: 25, 22, 20, 18, 16, 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 points are awarded to the first 20 riders across the finish
- High-mountain stages: 20, 17, 15, 13, 12, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 points are awarded to the first 15 riders across the finish
- Time-trials: 15, 12, 10, 8, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 points are awarded to the top 10 finishers of the stage
- Intermediate sprints: 6, 4, and 2 points are awarded to the first three finishers
King of the Mountains -- Red-and-White Polka Dot Jersey
The King of the Mountains' polka-dot jersey works on the same system as the points classification and its green jersey. Points are awarded at the summit of each climb, and the rider with the highest number of accumulated points is awarded the polka-dot jersey. Mountains are graded on a scale of five: Category 4 are the "easiest" climbs, up through Categories 3 through 1, and then the hardest and most storied climbs are given a Hors-Categorie ranking (beyond category). Here is the breakdown of how points are awarded:
- Category 4: 3, 2 and 1 points for the first 3 riders to the summit
- Category 3: 4, 3, 2 and 1 points for the first 4 riders to the summit
- Category 2: 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, and 5 for the first 6 riders to the summit
- Category 1: 15, 13, 11, 9, 8, 7, 6 and 5 points for the first 8 riders to the summit
- Hors-Categorie: 20, 18, 16, 14, 12, 10, 8, 7, 6 and 5 points for the first 10 riders to the summit
Also, if the last climb of a stage is ranked Category 2 or harder, the points awarded are doubled for each rider earning them...
Best Young Rider -- White Jersey
This title is given to the highest-placed rider on the general classification who is age 25 or younger...
Most Aggressive Rider -- Red Race Number on Jersey
The most-aggressive rider is determined by a panel of eight race experts, who award the red jersey number after each stage for the rider to wear the next day on the road...
WHO ARE THE FAVORITES?
Last year's second-placed finisher, Cadel Evans of team Silence-Lotto, is riding as the number-one favorite in a short list of main contenders. With Astana being denied entry to the 2008 Tour despite having both the first- and third-place finishers from the 2007 Tour on their squad, Evans is indisputably the favorite...
And then there's the fact that there are several Spaniards, led by Alejandro Valverde of Caisse d'Epargne, who will have a legitimate chance to bring the yellow jersey back to Spain for a third straight year. Others from Spain who could stand atop the podium in Paris include Carlos Sastre (Team CSC), 2006 winner Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne), and Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi)...
With Tom Boonen not allowed to start the 2008 Tour due to his out-of-competition positive test for cocaine, this competition also begins without the previous season's winner present. But three-time green jersey winner Robbie McEwen will be lining up in Brest for Silence-Lotto, as will 2005 winner Thor Hushovd of Credit Agricole. Others with a shot include six-time champion and elder statesman Erik Zabel of Milram and three-time world champion Oscar Freire of Rabobank. Look out, though, for a contingent of younger faces led by Gerald Ciolek of Columbia (Team High Road recently acquired new sponsorship for the Tour... this is the former T-Mobile team) and two Italian 27-year-olds -- Daniele Bennati (Liquigas) and Danilo Napolitano (Lampre)...
King of the Mountains
Two-time winner Michael Rasmussen (Rabobank) was pulled by his team from last year's race while comfortably in both the yellow and polka-dot jerseys and will not be racing in this year's Tour. Rasmussen's exit last year opened the way for Mauricio Soler (Barloworld) to emerge to win his first KOM crown. He returns this year, only 25, to continue the long tradition of Colombian climbers competing in the Tour. Others who could win this award include GC contenders like Evans, Sanchez or Sastre, or one of their lieutenants like Yaroslav Popovych, who works for Evans at Silence-Lotto...
I'll refrain from choosing the best young rider... as you can see, guys like Thomas Dekker (23, Rabobank), Andy Schleck (23, Team CSC), and Ciolek (22) have a chance to factor into multiple areas of the Tour and it remains to be seen how they will separate out. It is rare to find repeat winners due to the age limit...
And as far as the Most Aggressive Rider, the jury is subjective... and while they usually pick the correct rider, it just depends on how the race shakes out... Oscar Pereiro has won it before, though, as have several others...
QUESTIONS FROM FANS
Here is where I will answer any and all cycling questions you may have:
Q: Does an American have a shot at winning? Are there any American teams this year?
A: Probably not to the first... and yes to the second. Slipstream-Chipotle (I think they're called Garmin-Chipotle now during the Tour) and Columbia (formerly High Road) are the two American-registered teams, and they are the only ones with Americans on their squad in the race. For Columbia, the best shot lies with George Hincapie... with Garmin-Chipotle, David Zabriskie could be a dark-horse... but probably only to wear the yellow after the stage 4 time trial...
Q: Chipotle? Like the food?
A: Chipotle is a restaurant chain which sponsors the team... the thing about cycling is that teams are named for the companies which sponsor them... it takes a little getting used to, but the easiest way to learn is to watch and get to distinguish the different brightly-colored Lycra uniforms from one another to distinguish teams... you can learn more about sponsorship and the role it plays in professional cycling here...
Q: Is Michael Rasmussen in this year's race or is he without a team?
A: No, Michael Rasmussen is currently a man without a team. Rabobank, the Dutch squad that had previously employed him, terminated his contract during last year's Tour. The Dane was effectively blacklisted from the sport, though a European court has determined that Rabobank owe him around $1.5 million in wages he was still due. 2007 was probably the last time we see him in a professional bike race...
Q: Why did they terminate his contract in the middle of a race like that?
A: Rasmussen was withdrawn by his Rabobank team while leading the 2007 Tour de France because he had lied about his whereabouts when he missed pre-Tour drug testing. He said he was in Mexico with his wife and child; it was reported by a journalist who had seen him and conversed with him that he was actually in Italy. While he never actually tested positive for any type of doping, the fact that he covered up his location and evaded doping control was enough for the Dutch squad to terminate his contract... a hard decision, especially since Rasmussen was a two-time King of the Mountains winner and was sitting on an over two-minute lead in the race with less than a week remaining. In the end, though, the team and its sponsors decided it was more beneficial to distance themselves from a rider under suspicion than to earn headlines for the team with his victory only to see it later overturned...
Ultimately, that might've proven to be in the team's best interests. Only a year earlier, Floyd Landis performed a miracle in the mountains which hadn't been seen in decades and then dominated the subsequent time trial to take the maillot jaune and give the United States an eighth consecutive Tour victory. Phonak, his team sponsor, was ecstatic. The oncoming major sponsor for the next season, iShares, was poised to gain incredible publicity with this good fortune. Then the positive test came out... and the team had to distance itself. Yet, when things are allowed to bubble to that boiling point where a positive test is made public, things turn disastrous. iShares withdrew its sponsorship, the team folded, and the rest of the riders -- none guilty of anything except helping their teammate win, the entire reason for their employment -- were without a contract as well.
Q: Will we never see Rasmussen in the Tour de France or all professional races?
A: I fear that we have probably seen the last of him in the sport of cycling... which is a shame. He was a good rider who may or may not have went to the dark side; we can never say for certain, though we do know that he had passed every doping control at the 2007 Tour de France while in the polka-dot and/or yellow jersey (because he was dominating BOTH competitions at the time of his departure and dismissal)... they test the leaders of every competition as well as the stage winner and several randomly-selected riders after EVERY stage, so Rasmussen urinated clean A LOT...
However, he is now thirty-four years old and has not raced in almost a year. He could eventually return to the sport as Tyler Hamilton has; however, the problem with cycling is that suspicion lingers far after time has been paid for a crime -- even when that crime was never proven. So if you want to enjoy any highlights from Michael "the Chicken" Rasmussen, you'll have to go back to his Tour performances on video or DVD from 2005-2007... those were his glory years. Before that he had several minor victories, nothing spectacular... if you want early-career stuff, you'll be watching mountain biking (hunt down his victory at the 1999 UCI Cross-Country World Championships)... because he is probably not coming back to cycling ever again in any dominant capacity...
Q: isn't being a good mountain rider more vital than being a good sprinter in the Tour de France?
A: In the Tour, the mountains separate the all-around riders from the sprinters. The sprinters still have the green jersey which carries its own prestige, but in general to win the yellow jersey as the overall winner on time it is better to be good at climbing than at sprinting... but that does not mean that time trials, a third discipline tested twice in this year's race, do not play an important role. Tour champions invariably stand to gain or lose the most time in these sections due to there being no team support...
Q: Regarding Astana, are they banned from competing in the Tour just this year or until further notice? And did they race in the Giro? If so, how did they finish?
A: In regards to the case of Astana and its absence from the Tour de France, Amaury Sport Organization (the race organizer of the Tour) and race director Christian Prudhomme have said this about the team's exclusion:
*quote* We had no choice but to exclude Astana this year. Here was a team that in 2007, following the scandals of 2006, assured us, "It's a new team, you can trust us." The Tour de France paid dearly for that trust. So now we simply say, "Let's wait and see." They'll be back, if they're worthy. Our duty is to protect the Tour de France, a living monument. *endquote*
So there you have it... Astana are merely banned for the 2008 Tour... for the moment. The fact that Alberto Contador and the team won the 2008 Giro d'Italia has no bearing on ASO's decision; rather, this is a matter of looking for sustained growth and believability as the team implements new internal anti-doping procedures under new director Johan Bruyneel.
Q: Will Contador still have a chance at winning another Tour?
A: Contador is young -- only 25 (in fact, exactly one day YOUNGER than me) -- and his first real breakthrough, as I remember it, came with Liberty Seguros in 2005 when he first caught my eye barely avoiding a skid into the rocks plummeting down the col toward Nice and rode alongside Alexandre Vinokourov in the doomed breakaway before eventual winner of the Best Young Rider jersey Alejandro Valverde took the sprint. He was originally implicated among the Liberty Seguros riders in the Operacion Puerto scandal before being exonerated... then he joined Discovery Channel and Johan Bruyneel, the man who led Lance Armstrong to seven consecutive victories. He won the 2007 Paris-Nice, only two years after he caught my eye that first time, and then put himself in position to benefit from Rasmussen's early exit to take over the yellow jersey and hold it into Paris...
As for the mountains argument, Contador is a top climber... Discovery originally hired him to be a lieutenant for Ivan Basso, who eventually received a suspension for attempting to blood dope... but his time-trial skills need a lot of work. However, the true specialists in that discipline are rarely also great climbers, since the power needed to sustain long solo efforts requires musculature and musculature equals weight... and that is where Lance Armstrong was an anomaly. Contador could use work on his time trials, but Bruyneel can easily train him to ride as efficiently and aerodynamically as possible. After all, Armstrong had a unique time trial position as well...
But he proved he could still do it in this year's Giro d'Italia, holding off Riccardo Ricco with his superior team. That is the real key in cycling -- having a strong team of riders to protect the captain, to shield the wind, to help open up the race by turning up the pace at the front and allowing the leader to draft... and Contador has that with Astana, but only if they can actually prove to race organizers that they are a clean team and that they truly have changed. The story has been heard too many times in cycling that the power brokers who decide who participates where have become jaded and need PROOF... Astana has taken those steps, and surely will be in next year's Tour... I'd also look for them in late August and early September at this year's Vuelta a Espana... they could field a powerhouse team there as well, and I think race organizer Unipublic would be receptive to having that team in their race...
If Astana can prove themselves in the Giro AND Vuelta in 2008, then ASO would be hard-pressed to find a reason to reject Astana's inclusion in the 2009 Tour...
Have a question? Leave it in the comments or send a FanMail to Bigalke... and it'll get answered right here!
Here's a link to my Tour de France preview...
And that's about all for now... stay tuned daily for stage recaps, and be sure to ASK if you need ANYTHING clarified!