We still don’t know who’s going to win the Tour de France but we do have a better idea of who’s in contention, writes Anthony Tan from atop Luz Ardiden.
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7 Apr 2015 - 11:32 PM  UPDATED 13 Apr 2015 - 3:37 PM

If one has been following the race since the start in the Vendée, no-one
can really say they were surprised by what happened on Thursday's
twelfth stage to Luz Ardiden.

But that doesn't mean there weren't any interesting observations to make of it.

Alberto
Contador of Saxo Bank-Sungard, the defending champion who has crashed
four times since the Tour started on 2 July, was not at his best. No
doubt, his right knee, injured in a fall in his most recent crash on
Stage 9, is still not 100 percent recovered, even though only yesterday
on the stage to Lavaur he said his knee never "bothered me at any time".

Contador
was, however, accurate in his prediction Wednesday, where he said, "At
Luz Ardiden, I think that everyone will be waiting. Someone has to open
the race, especially the Schleck brothers."

Those inseparable
brothers Schleck of Leopard-Trek, fourth and fifth at the start of the
day, respectively, behind Thomas Voeckler (Europcar), Luis Leon Sanchez
(Euskaltel-Euskadi) and Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), know if one of them is
to win this Tour, they need to open up at least a minute's advantage on
both Contador and Evans by the final time trial in Grenoble.

Though the Schlecks, should one of them be in the maillot jaune
by this point, will probably be aiming for closer to two minutes. In
their most recent TT outing before the Tour began, at the Tour de
Suisse, Andy and Fränk conceded 2:32 and 3:06 minutes, respectively, to
their team-mate and stage winner, Fabian Cancellara, over 32.1
kilometres. The Grenoble TT on Stage 20 is another 10km longer and just
as tough – although as history as shown at this point in the race, TT
performances depend more on residual strength than ability against the
clock.

From my observations, Fränk has looked the better rider
all year Рin particular his performance at the Crit̩rium International
in March – but it is still too early to say if Andy will ride for his
elder brother or vice versa.

We'll get a better indication of
that after this Saturday's equally tough leg to the Plateau de Beille,
where on the previous four occasions the climb has featured at the Tour,
the stage winner has gone on to win overall.

The two Italian GC
hopes, Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD),
have finally started to show promise. For me, Basso, the 2010 Giro
champ who forwent this year's 'corsa rosa' to concentrate on what
may be his last shot at winning the Tour de France, looks dangerous.
The 33-year-old from Varese tends to grow stronger as the race goes on,
as he demonstrated in the final week of the 2010 Giro, and I'm
predicting a vicious assault from the one-time client of the nefarious
Spanish doctor, Eufemiano Fuentes, now reformed.

As for Cunego,
he explicitly stated last year he would no longer concentrate on
focusing on the general classification in Grand Tours, following six
lacklustre years after his 2004 victory at the Giro, preferring to
concentrate on the Classics instead. But when you're in sixth place
after 12 stages and riding as well as 'the Little Prince' is… you have
no choice but to ride for GC!

One might've thought finishing last
out of 22 teams and losing 1'22 in the Les Essarts team time trial on
Stage 2 would have demoralised Thursday's stage winner, Samuel Sanchez.
But the opposite seems to be true for the Beijing Olympic champion, who,
after finishing fourth in last year's Tour, is aiming for the Paris
podium.

The rider from Asturias is currently 2:22 down on second-placed Fränk Schleck, who is 1:49 down on the never-say-die maillot jaune
of Voeckler – Evans, Andy Schleck, Basso, Cunego and Contador are
slotted in between. So, judging by his TT performance at the Dauphiné,
where he lost a whopping 3:27 to Tony Martin (HTC-High Road) over
42.5km, Sanchez will need to repeat his exploit of today, as if he were
an Energizer bunny on heat.

Then of course there's our man from Down Under…

Try
as he did to break the elastic, Evans could not shake off Basso or Andy
Schleck in the closing kilometres of the 13.3km climb to Luz Ardiden –
though he did contribute to the unseating of Contador, who finished 13
seconds back and is now seventh on GC, four minutes flat behind
Voeckler. Cadel now lies third on GC, 2:06 behind the race leader and 17
seconds in arrears of Fränk Schleck.

Yes, they finished second
in the team time trial, but BMC Racing is not the strongest outfit at
this year's race, in terms of providing their leader complete support.
The best Evans can hope from his charges is that they deliver him to the
bottom of each of the next three summit finishes – namely, Stages 14 to
Plateau de Beille, 18 to Galibier Serre Chevalier, and 19 to Alpe
d'Huez – with as little energy expended as possible.

Then, it is up to him to deliver. I remain confident he can still do it.

Follow Anthony on Twitter:@anthony_tan