- By Whit Yost
Stage 6 of the Tour de France followed the typical first-week story line: A breakaway of four riders—including Garmin-Sharp’s David Zabriskie—escaped and was caught just three kilometres before the finish line, where Peter Sagan won his third stage of the race in front of Andre Greipel and Matthew Goss.
But while the stage itself followed the traditional script, a massive crash 25 kilometres from the finish line rewrote the book for several of the men hoping to begin their GC assault in the mountains during Stages 7 and 8. Here’s a rundown of the contenders who are still in the running after today’s pile-up.
The 2012 Tour was predicted by many to be a two-horse race between Team Sky’s Bradley Wiggins and Team BMC’s Cadel Evans. After Stage 6 laid waste to the chances of many of their biggest challengers, those pundits are looking to be correct. Give credit to each rider’s teammates for keeping their respective captains at the front of the peloton and out of harm’s way.
Katusha’s Denis Menchov is likely the most dangerous rider that no one’s talking about. The most successful grand tour rider in the race, the Russian has quietly made it through the first week in fifth place overall, only six seconds behind Wiggins and four seconds ahead of Evans. The Russian can climb, time trial, and has the experience that comes with winning three grand tours. Should Wiggins and Evans focus too heavily on one another, Menchov could upset them both.
While his teammate Peter Sagan has garnered much of the attention with his three stage victories, Liquigas-Cannondale rider Vincenzo Nibali has also escaped the first week of the Tour de France healthy and fresh. Sagan’s success has raised the confidence of the Italian squad, easing some of the pressure on Nibali as the race for the overall title begins to intensify.
While RadioShack-Nissan may have kissed the GC chances of Frank Schleck goodbye today, Andreas Kloden emerged from a treacherous first week unscathed. The German currently sits in ninth place overall, only a handful of seconds behind Wiggins and Evans, and is a strong dark-horse contender to finish on the Tour’s final podium (for the third time in his career). Perhaps more importantly, Kloden has two valuable teammates in Maxime Monfort and Chris Horner, who are fresh and positioned well to help him in the mountains—if they don’t try and contend on their own.
Another rider who has benefited from having a field sprinter (Andre Greipel) to keep his team focused on what’s happening at the front of the race is Lotto-Belisol’s Jurgen Van den Broeck, who has enjoyed an incident-free ride to the first mountains of this year’s Tour de France. Having a sprinter on the squad has benefited the Belgian climber, as it forces him and his team to ride at the front of the peloton and away from the chaos at the back of the field.
The orange-clad members of Spain’s Euskaltel-Euskadi are often teased by fans for their tendency to be involved in just about every crash during the first week of the Tour de France. But so far, 2011 King of the Mountains Samuel Sanchez has managed to avoid trouble and sits only 33 seconds behind Wiggins as the race enters his favorite terrain.
Like Menchov and Kloden, Omega Pharma–Quick-Step’s Levi Leipheimer is one of a few riders still in contention who can stay with Wiggins and Evans in both the mountains and the time trials. Sitting less than 40 seconds behind Wiggins and Evans, the American’s form has been improving in recent weeks and should only get better as the race progresses.
Finally, while it might be a bit early in his career to expect Tejay van Garderen to challenge for a high finish in the Tour de France, the American has raced the first week like a veteran. Currently sitting in fourth place overall, Evans’ BMC lieutenant wears the white jersey as Best Young Rider and shows no signs of letting it go as the race enters more challenging terrain.
Overall, while many favorites saw their races go up in smoke during the first week, there are still several candidates poised to challenge Wiggins and Evans in the mountains and beyond. With plenty of racing still to come, anything can happen.