So we have finally reached the pointy end of the Tour de France (literally metaphorically), with only 6 stages left to go. These final, decisive stages will cover the mountains of the French Alps, the individual time trial (ITT) of stage 20, and the final stage procession into Paris.
So where are things at, how are the main contenders faring, and what do I think will happen from here? I'll give a quick rundown on these rider-by-rider:
1. Cadel Evans
I never thought I'd say this - but right now, I believe that Cadel is the favourite to take the overall title. His form appears great, he is responding quickly and decisively to attacks by the other riders, and he seems confident and calm within himself.
Why he will win - he is a much better time-trialist than either of the Schleck brothers, so they need to attack and gap him by at least 2-minutes over the next few Alpine stages - but Cadel is riding too strongly to let that happen. Smilarly, his lead over Basso and Contador (both strong time-trialists) mean they'll have to at least catch up to Cadel, and the big efforts required (if they can even do it) will lead them to be too fatigued to beat Cadel on stage 20.
2. "Frandy" Schleck
Frank & Andy Schleck (or 'Frandy') really need to 'do something' in the Alps. And by that, I mean they need to stop mucking about and drop the hammer on the other overall contenders (if they can). Tactically, their riding has been at best 'bewildering'. They are arguably the best climbers of all the overall contenders - if this is true, and they have the form, they need to blow everyone away over the next few stages.
Their biggest weakness is the time trial. So they need at least a 2-minute gap on everyone before the stage 20 ITT. The way they are riding, they'll go into the ITT level pegging with Cadel, and that won't be enough.
3. Ivan Basso
Basso came into this Tour underdone, thanks to a training accident (smashing his face on a descent from Mt Etna!). However, he has ridden into some terrific form over the course of the Tour. He is a similar rider to Cadel, and I believe their form is at a similar level as well.
Ivan's big problem is that he is more than a minute down on Cadel overall. So he too needs to gap Cadel in the Alps (jus to catch up), and then beat Cadel in the ITT. I think he could do one of those things, but not both.
4. Alberto Contador
Like Basso, Contador needs to attack hard in the Alps to make up a 2-minute deficit on Cadel, and then go on to defeat Cadel in the ITT. Alberto is a great rider - perhap the greatest Grand Tour rider of the current decade. But can he pull off an epic comeback in the Alps?
I don't think he can. His Giro d'Italia win earlier this year seems to have taken a lot out of him. And he is carrying a minor knee injury that seems to be blunting his usual dominance in the mountains. I believe this makes him a 'minor podium' candidate at best.
5. Thomas Voeckler.
The wildcard in all this is Thomas Voeckler, the plucky Frenchmen currently in yellow. He shouldn't still be leading this race - he is not in the same climbing league as the others, and so should have been dropped by now. But he hasn't been, he's still there!!
I believe he'll be dropped in the Alps, and fall out of contention. But they say that 'the yellow jersey gives you wings', and he might hold on long enough to snag a podium spot. It'll be interesting to see how he goes...
The big stages from here are stages 18 & 19. They'll be on Thursday & Friday nights here in Australia. Both are huge mountain stages, with summit-top finishes. If you can only pick two to watch, pick these two.
So I'll put my money where my mouth is, and predict my final overall finishing list:
1. Cadel Evans
2. Andy Schleck
3. Ivan Basso
4. Frank Schleck
5. Alberto Contador
6. Samuel Sanchez
7. Thomas Voeckler
8. Damiano Cunego
If I get all 8 in the right order - you all owe me a beer... ;)