Who’s going to win the Tour?

Cadel Evans, very possibly. Here’s why.

Words by Edward Pickering in Lourdes

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Friday July 15, 2011

Unlike the mist-obscured view from Luz Ardiden at the end of stage 12, a few things have become clear about the general classification of the Tour de France.

The most important of these is that the list of possible winners is now four names long: Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, Cadel Evans and Ivan Basso. Damiano Cunego and Samuel Sanchez aren’t entirely out of it, and the way Thomas Voeckler is riding, he could carry the yellow jersey all the way to the Col du Galibier. You never know with Alberto Contador, although he looked ragged yesterday.

When the attacks started towards the top of Luz Ardiden, the favourites coalesced into a group that instantly defined the hierarchy of the 2011 race, after almost two weeks of bluffing and speculation – the Schlecks, Basso, Evans, Contador and Cunego. Also guesting: Thomas Voeckler and Pierre Rolland, while Tom Danielson wasn’t far away. Samuel Sanchez was off the front, but he did climb most of Luz Ardiden at the same speed as the favourites.

That’s the core group who (Rolland aside) will all be in the top 10 in Paris, unless illness or crashes get in the way.

But it’s clear there is very little to choose between the five or six riders now floating towards the top of the overall standings like champagne bubbles. Frank Schleck may have chiselled 20 seconds out of his rivals (except Sanchez), but the group behind looked remarkably equal in strength.

This is how the Tour is going to play out. It looks like the 2011 race is going to be won with the nip and tuck of the test batsman, not by hitting sixes out of the ground.

This suits Cadel Evans. He conceded 20 seconds to Frank Schleck, nothing whatsoever to Basso and Andy Schleck, and he gained time on Alberto Contador. When you look at the rest of the race, and take into account the fact that the favourites are riding extremely conservatively, you could argue that Evans will be quite happy to concede 20 seconds per summit finish to Frank Schleck. Schleck’s going to need more than 1-20 over Evans in the Grenoble time trial. Even two minutes might not be enough.

Evans was probably the happiest of the favourites on Luz Ardiden for that reason. He defended strongly and put in a few surges of his own, which put the others in trouble. They know he’s going to be difficult to drop, and they know that he’s the best time triallist of the favourites. The fact he’s still ahead of Andy Schleck and Basso by 11 seconds and 1-10 respectively will also give him confidence.

The good news for the Schlecks and Basso is that Luz Ardiden is the easiest of the four summit finishes in the race. Evans hasn’t cracked yet, but tougher questions will be asked of him as the race goes on. Basso beat him in the 2010 Giro by essentially grinding him down in the mountains. It could yet happen in this Tour.

This assumes that the four summit finishes and the time trial will be the battlegrounds. The Gap and Pinerolo stages look potentially interesting tactically, although both have descents to the finish line, and Evans is the best descender of the four favourites.

With just over a week to go, the Tour looks like Evans’ to lose.

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