Commentary

How top riders are faring at Tour

Updated: July 10, 2009, 7:32 PM ET
By Bobby Julich | Special to ESPN.com

Well, not exactly the day I predicted.

It was pretty obvious who had the strongest team in Friday's Stage 7, the Tour's first mountain stage. Team Astana rode like it had the yellow jersey, controlling the pack for most of the climb up to Arcalis.

Again, the Tour is coming down to those few seconds. It's pretty mind-blowing how those little things come into play during the race. As each stage goes by, the margin for error becomes less and less.

I was a little surprised Fabian Cancellara lost the yellow jersey so early today; that was a bummer for me. He's been in top form since Tour de Suisse. Seven days seems to be his number. He had yellow a full seven days in the 2007 Tour, as well.

But now that the race has reached its first mountain stage, I thought I'd give a progress report of the top contenders thus far:

Alberto Contador and Lance Armstrong

The Astana teammates now sit second and third overall, respectively, after Friday. I thought Lance would have taken the yellow in Arcalis, but Contador showed he was the strongest rider out there after pulling away from the contender group under a mile from the finish.

I don't know if that was a planned move or a spur-of-the-moment thing; the move surprised me. With the way Astana was riding, they could have just stayed together and kept going until the end. Maybe Astana got wind of Rinaldo Nocentini being in a position to take the yellow jersey (which he did) and launched Contador to see what he could do.

As far as the team dynamic goes, I don't think there's going to be a problem for the next week or so. It's a long race and it isn't over. Friday was like a little appetizer for the main course next week and the dessert for the final week. Now that Contador is ahead of Lance, things will be a bit calmer and Lance will work for his teammate like he did Friday. And I'll say it again -- Astana has so many cards to play right now. If this card doesn't work, they'll play another card if they have to.

As for Lance, he was two-tenths of a second away from the yellow jersey the past few days; maybe that's as close as he'll get. Maybe not. Either way, this doesn't diminish the Tour for him. It's definitely not over; maybe that's why there wasn't a full-blown chase at the end of Friday's stage. He knows there are two more weeks to go.

Levi Leipheimer

Leipheimer would be the leader on any other team; it's a shame he's not able to ride for himself, or as much as he could be if he wasn't riding for Astana. With the team having so many strong riders, Astana could throw Levi up the road, but I don't think Levi would jeopardize the team in an attack. If he does take off on a climb, he'll be the strongest of the team or he'll be setting the table for Armstrong or Contador.

Again, I am bummed he's not riding for another team so we could see a great rider going up against the other great contenders of the race. He's only two years younger than Lance, so he doesn't have many more chances at winning a Grand Tour because of his age. Still, he always gets stronger toward the end of a stage race, so he's a dangerous rider to watch out for.

Bradley Wiggins

Wiggins is so impressive. Here's a guy who couldn't get over a mountain a few years ago when he switched over to the road from the track, and now he's a totally different rider. From the beginning of the season through the classics up until now, he's improved with each event. I bet he doesn't know what he can or cannot expect from himself; it's uncharted waters for what he can do in the Tour. On Friday, he looked as strong, if not stronger, as anyone in the front group.

I also appreciate his attention to detail and he seems to be in my kind of mindset when it comes to his bike. He uses O.Symmetric chainrings. (I first used them in 2003 and still use them now when I ride. The more oval-shaped rings help you get over the dead spot of a pedal stroke quicker and stay on the power part of the stroke longer.) It's cool to see the trend didn't die and some guys in the peloton still use them.

Andreas Kloeden

What a fantastic rider and domestique. He'll do anything that's asked of him. He'll never interfere with the politics between the other three big Astana riders (Alberto, Lance, Levi). Throughout his career, he's always been willing to work for the leader of his team, whether it was Jan Ullrich, Contador or Armstrong. It would be exciting to see what he could do on his own.

Having said that, he could factor in to the Astana tactics because he's so strong. He's in the same boat as Levi. Either will work for Contador or Lance in a supporting role. It takes a little bit of the fun out of the event, but ...

Tony Martin

What can you say? The team Columbia rider is a huge talent. He is obviously positioning himself for great things in the sport with the way he can time trial and climb. He's always hungry and always motivated. Tony's got the spirit of youth on his side. I don't see him in the top 5 this year, but he's gaining major experience for the future.

Christian Vande Velde

The Garmin-Slipstream leader just blows me away. Here's a guy who fractured five vertebrae in the Giro and to see him come back to form so quickly is amazing. He's turned into a great leader; he leads by example. For him to come off such a strong finish at last year's Tour, get injured and come back at the level he has this week, it's inspiring. If he's this good now, he'll be better later in the Tour.

He has to be preparing for the huge Mont Ventoux stage on the second-to-last day of the Tour and the overall classification. Being 1:24 behind the overall leader, he's not in a situation to take a risk just to wear yellow for a day. He'll stay around Levi, Lance and Andy Schleck and wait for his opportunity. He's also a guy who has the ability to time trial, which comes in the last week of the race, and can climb altitude because he lived in Boulder, Colo., for so long. That's a good combination of talents to have going into the last week of the race.

Andy Schleck

He should be the leader of Saxo Bank from here on out since he's the strongest overall candidate of the team. He's very strong, but has deficits to overcome being 1:49 behind. He tried to chase Contador on Friday when the Astana rider broke away from the lead group, but didn't have the explosiveness to catch him (I don't think many riders do). When Contador broke away, Andy likely thought, "Since I can't catch him, maybe I should play it safe and stay with the other contenders." Maybe if the playing field is more leveled later in the race, he can make an attack in the higher mountains. Keep in mind, Friday's climb was not the hardest of the Tour.

Carlos Sastre

Last year's Tour winner doesn't seem to be getting what he was hoping for from his Cervelo team, especially after losing a lot of time in the team time trial. He's now 2:52 behind the top spot. That means he's not going to be able to sit and wait and make just one move like he did last year in Alpe d'Huez. He's going to have to make multiple moves to gain time step by step. He's a true Grand Tour rider; he gets stronger as the race goes on. Once the race reaches the real climbs, he'll have his chance to defend his title.

Bobby Julich will be providing analysis for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. He retired from pro cycling in 2008 and is currently the technical director for Team Saxo Bank. The American finished third overall in the 1998 Tour and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.

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