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If we didn't already know it, a brief glance at the results from Saturday's 19km time trial would have confirmed that today's 67.5km team trial between Tours and Blois was always likely to serve up a large-scale re-enaction of Lance Armstrong and David Zabriskie's private battle for the first yellow jersey of the 2005 Tour.
The form book points to Armstrong and Discovery Channel, the winning team in both of the last two Tour time trials. CSC, on the other hand, have never managed better than third place (in 2002) and last year could only manage fifth. Nevertheless, a combination of Zabriskie's sensational performance on Saturday, team leader Ivan Basso's giant strides against the clock and team boss Bjarne Riis's obsession with the event has led some astute judges to predict an upset.
procycling analyses how the two nine-man teams measure up for this afternoon's 'Fracas on the Loire':
In order of finishing positions in Saturday's 19km time trial. (In brackets, weight; height; stage 1 finishing position)
Lance Armstrong, Discovery Channel (178cm; 70kg; 2nd)
David Zabriskie, CSC (183cm; 68kg; 1st)
The present king of the Tour and American cycling pitted against his heir apparent to at least one of those thrones. Armstrong is the prototype in this event: a superb time triallist who intimidates (bullies?) team-mates, even the weakest, into surpassing themselves. Zabriskie is equally powerful and a better technician, though not a leader of men. An energy-sapping Giro d'Italia and three days in the yellow jersey may also start to take their toll on the CSC man.
Our verdict (out of 10): Armstrong 10; Zabriskie 8
George Hincapie, Discovery Channel (190cm; 77kg; 4th)
Jens Voigt, CSC (189cm; 76kg; 8th)
A top-notch rouleur and now vastly experienced, Hincapie has been one of the stars of his team's superb displays in each of the last two team time trials at the Tour. Hincapie is also on great form, as his fourth place on Saturday demonstrated. Few riders in the peloton are as strong, resilient and inspirational as Voigt - one of Riis's bankers.
Our verdict: Hincapie 9; Voigt 9
Jos Luis Rubiera, Discovery Channel (180cm; 69g; 16th)
Bobby Julich, CSC: (181cm; 72kg; 11th)
Rubiera is the perfect testimony to Discovery Channel's knack of turning climbers into accomplished time triallists and rouleurs into climbers. The Spaniard is clearly on good form and rarely disappoints. Julich's Indian summer continues and his Tour experience and time-trialling pedigree just give CSC the edge here.
Our verdict: Rubiera 7; Julich 8
Yaroslav Popovych, Discovery Channel (175cm; 64kg; 17th)
Ivan Basso, CSC: (182cm; 70kg; 20th )
Popovych's performance on Saturday must rank as a surprise after some indifferent performances in time trials this season. The Ukrainian will be riding his first Tour TTT, but there is every indication that he, too, is undergoing the magic Discovery Channel makeover. Basso's reinvention as a grand tour leader for all terrains is precisely what Popovych should aspire to.
Our verdict: Popovych 7; Basso 8
Benjamin Noval, Discovery Channel (185cm; 77kg; 22nd)
Luke Roberts, CSC: (181cm; 71kg; 26th)
Noval was by some distance Postal's weakest link in the TTT last year, and will therefore be nervous when he sets out this afternoon. The Spaniard, does, however, have the body and the form to be an asset. Roberts, CSC's only Tour rookie, earned selection for the Tour largely on the basis of his track experience and some impressive riding in CSC's TTT dress rehearsals at training camps this winter.
Our verdict: Noval 7; Roberts 7
Pavel Padrnos, Discovery Channel (190cm; 81kg; 31st)
Kurt-Asle Arvesen, CSC: (183cm; 70kg; 28th)
Having been present in the US Postal TTT line-up in each of the last three Tours, Padrnos is a tried and tested stalwart in this discipline. Expect to see him doing long turns on the front, particularly in the first 30km. Arvesen is a disciplined, reliable cog for CSC and was crowned Norwegian time trial champion in 2001. It would be a major surprise if Arvesen wasn't there at the end today.
Our verdict: Padrnos 8; Arvesen 8
Paolo Savoldelli, Discovery Channel (180cm; 71kg; 32nd)
Carlos Sastre, CSC: (171cm; 63kg; 29th)
Like Popovych, Savoldelli had tended to be inconsistent against the clock. However, top-four finishes in both time trials at the Giro, which the 32 year old won last month, suggest that the Italian will be among Armstrong's strongest lieutenants. Post-Giro fatigue is also unlikely to kick in until week two of the Tour. Sastre's frequently fine performances in TTs belie his climber's physique and the procycling columnist should hang on to finish with Julich, Basso, Zabriskie et al.
Our verdict: Savoldelli 8; Sastre 7
Jos Azevedo, Discovery Channel (175cm; 64kg; 34th)
Nicki Sorensen, CSC: (182cm; 71kg; 52nd)
Like Sastre, Azevedo makes the most of a limited natural aptitude for this kind of event. A frequent winner of prologues early in his career and a former Portuguese time trial champion, Azevedo will make short but bustling contributions, especially on what few undulations there are on today's course. Sorensen rode well in the Ardennes Classics this spring but it is not noted for his time trialling and may struggle.
Our verdict: Azevedo 6; Sorensen 6
Manuel Beltran, Discovery Channel (178cm; 60kg; 70th)
Giovanni Lombardi, CSC: (178cm; 73kg; 99th)
It's safe to say that neither of these men was selected for the Tour with this stage in mind: Beltran will spring into action when the race reaches the Alps next week, while the 36-year-old Lombardi's role is one of Riis's eyes on the road and Basso's psychological guardian. Riis, in particular, is confident of finishing with nine men, but both Beltran and Lombardi are highly likely to be unfastened as the route hits a few kinks in the last 20km.
Our verdict: Beltran 5; Lombardi 5
Discovery Channel: 67 (out of 90)
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