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Tour de France

Long list of pre-race Tour de France faves are off the back

Unpredictable. That’s just what the Tour de France wanted when it designed a wild route this year without time bonuses, shorter time trials and no prologue. Ten days into the race, Tour officials must be very happy. The first half of the 2008 Tour has delivered just the kind of sparks and wide-open racing they were hoping for. Five riders have already worn the yellow jersey. Following the first individual time trial and two mountain stages across the Pyrénées, the top 5 is separated by less than one minute, a number almost unconceivable so deep into the race.

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By Andrew Hood

Kirchen struggled to hold his jersey on the Hautacam

Kirchen struggled to hold his jersey on the Hautacam

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Unpredictable. That’s just what the Tour de France wanted when it designed a wild route this year without time bonuses, shorter time trials and no prologue.

Ten days into the race, Tour officials must be very happy.

The first half of the 2008 Tour has delivered just the kind of sparks and wide-open racing they were hoping for. Five riders have already worn the yellow jersey.

Following the first individual time trial and two mountain stages across the Pyrénées, the top 5 is separated by less than one minute, a number almost unconceivable so deep into the race.

Riders that were bubbling under the headlines, such as Frank Schleck and Bernard Kohl, shot to the top of the GC while others who were dominating the first half, like Stefan Schumacher and Alejandro Valverde, fell back to earth.

CSC-Saxo Bank and Saunier Duval-Scott suddenly surpassed teams that dominated the first half of the race, such as Columbia and Caisse d’Epargne.

While the race is far from over and any rider within the top 10 still has a realistic shot of winning, that cannot be said for scores of pre-race favorites.

Carnage midway through the race has been fairly heavy, with the beyond-category steeps at Hautacam paying a heavy price.

Here are snapshots of some of the major victims of the Pyrénéan purge and where they stood before and after Hautacam.

Kim Kirchen (Columbia) was never a five-star favorite for victory, but after five days in yellow, his confidence was growing. The Flèche Wallonne champion fell back to earth Monday, tumbling out of the yellow jersey despite riding within himself up Hautacam. With even more mountains on tap, Kirchen will need to step up his climbing game in the Alps if he wants to keep alive his chances for the final podium. (Before Hautacam (BH): 1st; After Hautacam (AC): 7th at 1:56)

Valverde enjoyed his days in yellow

Valverde enjoyed his days in yellow

Photo: Graham Watson

The biggest loser in Monday’s Hautacam raid was Spanish national champion Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d’Epargne). A winner of the opening stage and the first yellow jersey, Valverde crashed in stage 5 and raced with his right leg and arm heavily bandaged since. His Caisse d’Epargne squad drove the peloton across the Massif Central and into Sunday’s first foray into the Pyrénées, but Valverde wilted coming up the Tourmalet. He lost 55 seconds over the summit, but CSC-Saxo bank put Jens Voigt and Fabian Cancellara on the front to seal his doom. Valverde never regained contact and limped across the line 19th at 5:52. (BH: 6th at 1;12; AH: 14th at 4:41)

Stijn Devolder (Quick Step) was hoping to become the first Belgian to finish in the top 10 since Johan Bruyneel was seventh in 1993. The Tour of Flanders champ struggled early in the Tour with a cold and was caught up behind the Schumacher crash at Super-Besse. He rode better over the Peyresourde-Aspin combo Sunday, but couldn’t match the pace up the Hautacam. (BH: 7th at 1:21; 28th at 13:36)

Winner of the 2006 Tour, Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d’Epargne) seemed to be back at his best after a tumultuous 2007 campaign. A solid opening time trial, Pereiro was looking like a strong second option if Valverde tumbled. Unfortunately, Pereiro had his bad day the same stage Valverde struggled over the Tourmalet. Pereiro’s never finished worst than 10th in four Tour starts. He’ll now be hard-pressed to keep that streak alive. (BH: 8th at 1:21; AH: 17th at 6:01)

Andy Schleck's GC hopes faltered on the Hautacam.

Andy Schleck’s GC hopes faltered on the Hautacam.

Photo: Casey B. Gibson

Luxembourg wonder boy Andy Schleck (CSC-Saxo Bank) popped at the base of Hautacam to see his chances of a miracle finish to match his breakthrough second-place Giro debut in 2007 quietly end. Despite hype he might be an outsider for overall victory, Schleck insisted all along that his Tour debut was to learn and lay the groundwork for future success. Now that his chances of winning the best young rider’s jersey are shot, he’ll be helping his older brother, Frank, and Carlos Sastre. (BH: 12th at 1:58; AH: 22nd at 8:34)

Former Giro champ Damiano Cunego (Lampre) was already languishing before the race turned into the Pyrénées. Italy’s Little Prince lost the wheel up the Cat. 2 summit at Super-Besse in stage 6 and crashed the next day. Cunego survived Sunday’s opening salvo, but was dropped on the Tourmalet, yet seemed to find a better rhythm on the Hautacam. Still, after skipping the Giro d’Italia to focus solely on the Tour, Cunego might have to finally face the reality that he’s better-suited for the classics than grand tours. (BH: 15th at 2:09; AH: 16th at 5:37)

Basque GC specialist Haimar Zubeldia (Euskaltel-Euskadi) rode horribly in the first time trial and then suffered in Sunday’s stage. Twice fifth at the Tour, Zubeldia was hoping to better that barrier. Instead, Zubeldia has been flat since the Tour started and now will switch gears to try for a risk-all run at a stage win. (BH: 40th at 11:47; AH: 46th at 33:52)

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