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tour de france

Read This Article and You Will Find Yourself Following the Tour de France

From left to right that's Schleck, Contador, and Armstrong in a classic example of photographic bicycle-race irony.

[Editor's note: ... or at least that's what happened to us; we read the first draft on Friday and then found ourselves irritated over the weekend that Jada hadn't taken hours out of her weekend to provide us with a savvy recap of the most recent stage. How selfish of her!]

Jada Yuan grew up watching eight-hour silent Japanese satellite feeds of the Tour de France because her dad needed more than ABC's meager coverage. He also talked her into attempting the legendary climb up Mont Ventoux in the Alps (8.9 percent grade for ten miles) that killed British cyclist Tom Simpson in the Tour of '67. She'll be writing about the Tour (or TDF) for The Sports Section. Today's installment: an overview of the key players. Tomorrow: a recap of the stages so far.

You are forgiven for ignoring the Tour de France last week. It was just so French of them to start things off inconveniently on July 3, right in the middle of barbecue preparations, the Wimbledon finals, the World Cup semifinals, and, you know, THE DECISION. But Spain has won and LeBron has made up his mind, and we must either cheer or weep and move on.

So, time to get obsessed with the Tour de France. Where do things stand? Well, the field is down to 186 from an original 198, thanks mostly to some ca-razy crashes in the beginning stages. And as of yesterday's Stage 8, the first big stage in the Alps, Lance Armstrong is completely out of contention (read all the gory details of his most unfortunate of Tours tomorrow). Aussie Cadel Evans has taken the yellow jersey, but it's Andy Schleck, last year's runner-up, who seems to be the man to watch. He put the hurt on the 2009 winner Alberto Contador on the final climb yesterday and won the stage, gaining ten seconds on the Spaniard. But this is still very much anyone's race.

The Basics: This year's tour is 3642 kilometer, or 2263 miles. That's to be completed over the course of a Prologue and twenty individual stages with only two rest days (one is today). Riders are (or were; see the previous paragraph) broken up into 22 teams of nine men each. Each team usually contains one or two contenders for the overall or General Classification (GC) title in addition to sprinters, time-trial specialists, and strong climbers capable of winning individual stages. When the stage isn't key, strategically, for the team leader, the other guys can try to have their moment of glory. Otherwise, it's their job to be what are called domestique riders, whose only purpose is to exhaust themselves putting their leader in a good position. That means waiting for him if he's lagging and letting him draft you to catch back up with the peleton (main group of riders), or setting a brutal pace at the front of the pack so he can rest while you do all the work of trying to decimate his opponents. It can also mean giving up your bike to him if his is damaged in a crash.

The Players:

Alberto Contador, 27, Team Astana. The guy to beat. The brash, arrogant, undeniably talented Spaniard won in 2007 and 2009, last year besting his then-Astana teammate Lance Armstrong, who had just come out of retirement. In beating Armstrong, Contador basically staged a coup, defeating a teammate whom he was supposed to be helping. He also said lots of really rude things about Armstrong in the press. ("On a personal level ... I have never admired him and never will.") Then again, Contador was the better cyclist. He's still the odds-on favorite to win, but that nasty public power struggle resulted in Armstrong and his longtime team manager Johan Bruyneel leaving Astana and taking eight of the team's nine TDF riders over to Team RadioShack. Things have cooled a bit: Contador and Armstrong still don't talk, but Contador did give Armstrong and the rest of his former Astana teammates inscribed watches as thanks for their help in his 2009 victory. This year, there's been speculation that the new Astana team might not be strong enough to get Contador through the mountains, but on yesterday's Stage 8, they proved themselves very cohesive, driving the pace the entire way, and effectively nailing Armstrong's coffin shut. However, in the final kilometer of yesterday's stage, Andy Schleck attacked and Contador couldn't respond, which may indicate he's more fallible than anyone thought.
Standing as of Stage 8: third place; one minute, one second behind Cadel Evans the overall leader.

Lance Armstrong, 38, Team RadioShack. He retired once before, but now he'll be 39 in September and this really is his final Tour. (He even said so on his Twitter!) Last year, he faced the totally awkward and unexpected dilemma of going from a lead role to playing Contador's second banana — but he still finished third. Not bad. This time, he came into the Tour as Team RadioShack's undisputed leader. He was in better shape than in 2009, since he wasn't coming off three and a half years out of competition, and seemed to be riding extremely well. That is, when he wasn't crashing. He crashed in Stage 2, along with everyone else, re-injuring the elbow he hurt in the Tour of California earlier this year, when he also had to get eight stitches for a cut under his eye and pull out of the race. Worse was a flat he got on the cobblestones in Stage 3, causing him to lose over a minute to Contador. And then in Stage 8, he got caught up in — rather unbelievably — three crashes; one was particularly nasty and left him bleeding from multiple wounds throughout the day. He never managed to make up the time and finished nearly twelve minutes back. He'll now switch to the role of domestique, helping Team RadioShack's one remaining contender, Levi Leipheimer.
Standing as of Stage 8: 39th place; thirteen minutes, 56 seconds behind.

Andy Schleck, 25, Team Saxo Bank. Last year's runner-up. Good climber, weaker time trial-ist. That's not usually a winning combination, but Schleck tries to make up for it by being very aggressive. He's close with his older brother Frank, who finished fifth in the past two Tours; together they made a credible run on the yellow jersey in Stage 17 of the 2009 TDF when they led a three-man breakaway, the two of them plus Contador hanging on for dear life, and Frank took the stage win. Both Andy and Frank crashed badly in Stage 2 of this Tour (who didn't?), then Frank crashed again in Stage 3 and broke his collarbone in three places, leaving Andy bereft of both his strongest teammate and his emotional rock. Yesterday, though, he proved he's a force even without Frank by attacking a select group of GC contenders in the final kilometer and taking his first stage win ever in the TDF. None of the other GC contenders could respond to the attack, which has to be a serious confidence boost for Schleck.
Standing as of Stage 8: second place; twenty seconds behind.

Cadel Evans, 33, Team BMC Racing. Aussie, Standing as of Stage 8: first place; overall leader.

Carlos Sastre, 35, Team Cervélo TestTeam. Won the Tour in 2008, the year the TDF banned Astana — and consequently Contador — because of past doping. Managed to hold off Evans's strong surge that year for a 58-second overall victory. Finished fourth in the Giro this year, but crashed twice in that race, leaving him with a herniated disk that prevented him from doing any serious training between the end of the Giro and the start of the Tour. In Stage 3 of this TDF, a rider fell in front of him, causing him to crash and break both wheels. He had to ride his teammate Brett Lanchaster's oversize frame all the way to the finish and lost more than two minutes. Still, yesterday he managed to finish with Contador and Evans. May be a dark horse.
Standing as of Stage 8: twelfth place; two minutes, 40 seconds behind.

Bradley Wiggins, 30, Team Sky. Six-time Olympic medalist, fourth-place finisher in the 2009 TDF. This will be his first time as team leader (yay!) ... but on a brand-new team (eep). He's good in the mountains, but better at time trials, so this year's mountain-heavy route doesn't quite play to his strengths. British papers would have you believe he can win it all. Not true. He seemed to be doing great yesterday, but seriously ran out of steam at the end and finished one minute, 45 seconds behind Schleck.
Standing as of Stage 8: fourteenth place; two minutes, 45 seconds behind.

Ivan Basso, 32, Team Liquigas-Doimo. Won the Giro d'Italia this year. Crashed with cuts and bruises in Stage 1. Managed to keep up with Contador and Evans in Stage 8, so is still in contention.
Standing as of Stage 8: fourteenth place; two minutes, 41 seconds behind.

Levi Leipheimer, 36, Team RadioShack. Has four top-ten finishes in the TDF, including third overall in 2007. Pulled out of last year's Tour after breaking a wrist when he was in fourth place overall. He's implicated in disgraced Tour winner Floyd Landis's accusations of rampant drug use on the U.S. Postal Service Team during Lance Amstrong's reign of seven TDF wins, and, like Armstrong and Team RadioShack manager Johan Bruyneel, is under federal investigation. The investigation won't be over any time soon, so for now he can just concentrate on being Team RadioShack's only hope for an overall victory now that Armstrong is out of contention.
Standing as of Stage 8: eighth place; two minutes, fourteen seconds behind.

Denis Menchov, 32, Team Rabobank. Won the Vuelta a España in 2005 and 2007 and the Giro d'Italia in 2009. Finished fourth in the 2008 TDF. Didn't defend his title in the Giro this year owing to the flu, but that probably puts him in better position for the TDF. Good climber and good under adversity; he fell during the final time trial stage of the Giro of 2009 and not only rode a teammate's bike to the end, but increased his lead. Was in the group of GC contenders who finished Stage 8 just behind Andy Schleck yesterday.
Standing as of Stage 8: fifth; one minute, ten seconds behind.

Photo: Bryn Lennon/Getty Images