This year’s Tour de France is going to be dominated by the rivalry between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck, it’s a re-match that everyone wants to see after last year’s close race and the chain-gate incident that cost Schleck exactly the same amount of time he lost by.
I think the Spaniard has all the cards needed to win the Tour de France yet again. He knows how to win it, has the team to back him and he has won the Giro already this year. But to arrive in Paris in yellow, he'll have to survive the media circus in order to do so. The pressure on him will be greater than normal and not just in the race. With the Clenbuterol saga still unresolved, he'll have to live with every man and his dog scrutinising his every move, every meal and every reaction of the crowd, as we saw at the team presentation. Even a change of socks will become a media event full of speculation, making the actual racing seem the easy bit.
Andy Schleck knows he could and perhaps should have won last year Tour de France but he didn't. So this year’s race, which has fewer individual time trial kilometres, is his chance to put that right.
To make sure he's in the best place to win his first ever Tour, Schleck has gathered all his toys and thrown them into the Leopard Trek pram. Although his form hasn't been great so far this season, I’d expect he’ll be good come the Pyrenees. Will that be good enough to beat Contador? All things being equal, I’d say no. But then they won't be equal with what Saxo Bank will be going through, so the younger Schleck and his team are in a good position to take advantage of any hint of weakness.
The trending and the fending groups
The final podium place is probably the hardest to call with a whole group of riders expected to be battling it out for that third spot. To try to make sense of where they are and what they've been doing I'll split them into two groups: trending and fending.
In the trending bunch, where things are looking up and they can come to the start line looking good and feeling confident, are Levi Leipheimer and to a lesser extent Chris Horner (RadioShack), Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky), Jurgen Van den Broeck (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Cadel Evans (BMC) and Robert Gesink (Rabobank). They all have done something this year to believe that things will go well for them, only Evans hasn't really shined in recent weeks but he has the experience.
In the fending off the questions group are Frank Schleck (Leopard Trek), Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Ryder Hesjedal and Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Cervelo), Roman Kreuziger (Astana), Janez Brajkovic and Andreas Klöden (RadioShack), Ivan Basso (Liquigas-Cannondale), Rein Taaramae (Cofidis) and Damiano Cunego (Lampre-ISD).
They are all going to get the worst question in the world asked of them everyday: "When are you going to do something in the race?" Out of this group I'd expect to see regular appearances in the front selection from Sanchez, the Garmin boys, Klöden and Basso. But the others will, I suspect, be left asking themselves what happened on the hardest and most selective mountain stages.
The entertainers and animators
There is one more group of riders to consider and make a note of their names for the next three weeks and I’ve called them the entertainer or animators.
They won’t be pre-occupied by GC but should provide some great racing as they try and win stages. Step forward: Fabian Cancellera, Philippe Gilbert, Thor Hushovd, Alexandre Vinokourov, Vasil Kiryienka, Nicolas Roche, Geraint Thomas, Sylvain Chavanel, Tony Martin, Thomas Voeckler and the breakaway loving Thomas de Gendt.
If they all win a stage then that leaves the sprinters to pick over the flatter days. I can see Mark Cavendish taking at least three wins if he gets things right, while it would be good to see Tyler Farrar win his first Tour de France stage, and I think Petacchi will win one too. My other predictions are: best team: RadioShack; best sprinter (green jersey): Cavendish; best climber (polka-dot jersey): Van den Broeck; best young rider (white jersey): Tejay Van Garderen.
I’ve got a feeling the first week dominated by the Belgians and HTC-Highroad, then once the race hit the mountains it'll be the start of the big show and the Contador-Schleck showdown.
I’ll analyse the impact of the team time trial and the first block of racing next week.