Will the 2009 Tour de France become an intra-squad rivalry for Team Astana or will somebody else raise the level of their game and try and take on the two best stage racers of this decade? The Lance vs. Alberto question has been on everyone's lips since Armstrong announced his comeback last September.
Even though there have been major setbacks for both riders, the fervor hasn't died down one bit, and no one has been promoting another rider to contend for the top spot. To be sure, there is a credible group of challengers for the yellow jersey, but can anybody really replace either Alberto Contador or Lance on the top step of the podium?
Contador appears to have a slight edge with the cycling cognoscenti, but it is by no means a lock. His major advantage over Armstrong is both his age and his ability to launch or respond to sharp attacks in the mountains. If he can match Lance in the time trials it will force a showdown on the climbs, a place Contador has the advantage.
If you read between the lines, the game plan for Lance Armstrong's success at the Tour is to stay with Contador in the mountains and then beat him in the time trials. I think riding side-by-side, Lance can match Alberto on the climbs.
However, if a rival such as Carlos Sastre or the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, start lighting it up in the mountains, Contador will be able to respond better. Lance has to hope that Team Astana can control the climbs and minimize the attacks. Chris Horner would have been a key player in this strategy. Too bad he was left off the roster.
Silence-Lotto's Cadel Evans rode a hugely aggressive Dauphine Libere, and many people thought they were seeing a whole new rider. Unfortunately, the Dauphine is not the Tour. Look for Cadel to return to his old ways in July. The two-time runner-up (2007 and 2008) needs to control his nerves and relax. He can't afford to waste any unnecessary energy as he will get no help from his teammates in the mountains.
Carlos Sastre is the wild card. If he goes uber-aggressive in the mountains he could decide the Contador/Armstrong leadership question. With 2007 Tour winner Contador in the race, Sastre will most likely not repeat his 2008 victory, but the podium is a real possibility.
Andy Schleck is getting more play from the cycling cognoscenti than his older brother Frank. Both give up huge chunks of time in the time trials, so they cannot be considered contenders for the top spot. However, like Sastre, their aggressiveness on the climbs could split the race wide open, especially for Team Astana.
It has been eleven years since the last rider, Marco Pantani, was able to pull off the Giro d'Italia-Tour double. I don't think Denis Menchov of Rabobank will be able to win the Tour as he will have to face much stiffer competition in the time trials than he had in the Giro. However, a podium place is definitely in the offing if he has recovered from winning the 2009 Giro and can re-discover the form he had in May.
Christian Vande Velde will still be trying to find his form when the Tour starts. Luckily for him, the only mountain-top finish in the first two weeks, Andorra-Arcalis, is just a 5-mile (8km) climb. Hopefully, he can limit his losses in the opening 9-mile (15km) time trial in Monaco and then ride himself into shape so that when the Tour hits its grueling final week we see the same rider who was at the head of affairs during last year's Tour.