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Tuesday, July 8, 2008
Tour heating up as true contenders emerge in time trial

By Bobby Julich
Special to ESPN.com

Now it is time to get serious! After a stressful few days of the Tour de France, Tuesday was the day we got to see who are the pretenders and contenders.

The Stage 4 individual time trial (18.3 miles) was much shorter than a normal time trial in the Tour de France. So, going in, time gaps wouldn't be as big and it was important to have a good ride for your team's morale.

Alejandro Valverde
Bobby Julich believes Alejandro Valverde's new kit may be covered in yellow again before the Tour is over.

At the top of the contenders list is Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), who threw down the favorite card today. And we saw why the Aussie is so dangerous. He is a jack-of-all-trades on the bike -- he can put down a solid time trial (he finished fourth in the stage to jump to fourth overall) and then come back and climb strong in the mountains. Now, the first mountain stage of the Tour won't be that decisive. You'll likely see another breakaway and maybe one of the nonfavorites winning the stage. But the favorites for the general classification will be marking each other.

That means they'll all have their eyes on Evans. Losing time to Cadel is not easy; gaining time isn't simple, either. At this point, there's not much teams can do but watch and see what Evans does. Teams with contenders will chill out and see what transpires on the course. But remember, this Tour isn't going to be over in the first week; the second week is when the race is won.

Which brings me to Alejandro Valverde. Some may look at his 23rd-place finish in Stage 4 as a bad thing. But, as he now sits 17th overall, I think this plays to the Caisse d'Epargne rider's advantage. Look, the guy's been in amazing form all year long. After Valverde won Stage 1 of the race in such decisive fashion and wore the yellow jersey into the second stage, the pressure was on. Now, Valverde will be brought back to earth a little bit after a day like Tuesday. He can refocus, not feel as much pressure and take a bit of a backseat as the race shifts into the mountains. And did we mention the mountains are where Valverde is at his best?

Valverde is so patient and confident at the same time and he can put fear in the hearts of his rivals. Expect him to add another stage win and again wear yellow at some point in the Tour.

(On a side note, did you notice Valverde's new kit? Well, bet you couldn't have missed him in the black, red and orange gear! He was not the only one sporting new gear. CSC-Saxo Bank, Team Columbia and Garmin-Chipotle have changed their look and it will take some time to get used to.)

OK, on to my surprises and disappointments from Tuesday:

Surprise ...

My former teammate from the ol' Telecom days, Stefan Schumacher, had a stage that no one saw coming, including me. He finished second in the time trial of the German national championships in the week preceding the Tour; maybe that gave him some confidence. It was an impressive ride nonetheless. This is a rider who was left for dead some years back, but has worked his way back up the rankings and now he's wearing the yellow jersey after winning a stage of the Tour de France! I know Stefan well and I'm glad to see him succeed at such a high level.

Disappointment ...

It was hard to see my Team CSC-Saxo Bank teammate Fabian Cancellara not win the stage and take the yellow jersey like I thought he could. Same with brothers and teammates Frank and Andy Schleck. I thought any, if not all, of the three would have been higher up the leaderboard. It's hard to say why it didn't happen; you can never predict these things. My only guess is the riders are balancing the responsibility of looking out for three potential leaders on the same team. Fabian is looking after and Andy, Frank and Carlos Sastre, and vice versa. You're tag-teaming between other riders on the team. And after all the stress of the first three stages, and all the rain and wind and uphill finishes that came with them, the CSC boys had to sacrifice a lot of energy. You saw it with Fabian on Monday. He was keeping an eye out for Carlos and didn't have any punch in the final kilometers of Stage 3. But either rider could have a good day, so I am looking forward to seeing them rebound.

Next up ...

I am now anxiously looking forward to Thursday's Stage 6, the first mountain stage of the Tour. The first mountain stage is always tricky because you don't want to show your cards too early. I don't think it will be too decisive for the overall favorites, but it will be a stage everyone takes seriously nonetheless.

I hope it's a stage where Andy Schleck will show some form and take control of the race for a few days. As far as the overall favorites go, I don't see much changing. Contenders and their teams will make sure those distances in the mountains don't get out of control. You don't want to commit too early.

Bobby Julich, a member of Team CSC-Saxo Bank, will be providing a diary for ESPN.com throughout the Tour de France. The American has been a professional cyclist since 1992. He finished third overall in the 1998 Tour de France and won the Paris-Nice race in 2005.