Final 2009 Tour de France ladder

With just days left before the Grand Depart in Monaco, we examine where our top favourites are on the ladder of success.

There is less than a week to go before the start of the Tour de France in Monaco, and if our favourites haven't done their homework by now, it's far too late. There can be no cramming for the biggest race of the year, and our top riders have been studiously honing their form since our last update.

The riders face their first exam in the opening 15km time trial on Sunday. Who will be top of the class? Your friends at Cyclingnews are going to take a wild stab in the dark and rank 10 of our 12 original favourites based on their performances in the last month.

1 Alberto Contador (3)

Contador is coming into the Tour with guns a'blazin'2007 Tour champion Contador was only sitting in third before the start of the Dauphiné, and if we'd have measured this Spaniard's chances after that race, he would not have been number one. After a solid opening time trial, Contador was second to Cadel Evans by just eight seconds. Yet after a longer test against the clock, the Astana rider was 45 seconds back.

Contador refused to show his cards on the mighty Ventoux, and on the final mountain top finish, he seemingly teamed up with fellow Spaniard Alejandro Valverde to ensure that rider's victory in the overall rather than fighting for his own result. Contador ended the race in third just over a minute behind the Australian Cadel Evans and 1:18 behind Valverde.

While Valverde will not be allowed to contest the Tour unless the Court of Arbitration for Sport reverses his ban in Italy, Evans may well be Contador's biggest threat, especially in the time trials.

However, Contador sent his competitor from Down Under a little message last week when he slayed the Spanish time trial championships.  His performance in the Dauphiné may have been a well-controlled ruse to lull the other contenders into a false sense of security, or he simply may have been waiting to push himself to peak form. Whatever the reasons for his time losses a month ago, it has become clear that Alberto Contador is coming into the Tour with guns a-blazin' and will be ready to smoke the competition.

Contador also won a small political battle with the Astana team's Tour selection. With the absence of American Chris Horner, the chances of there being any split loyalties in the team have been reduced - at least along national lines.

Contador was given his pick as support rider, Sergio Paulinho, and Lance Armstrong has fellow American Levi Leipheimer. Nobody knows better than Armstrong that the only way to win the Tour is to have the team focused on one rider. The only question mark for Contador's success is on whether Armstrong will sacrifice his chance for an eighth Tour win to help his teammate.

2 Cadel Evans (4)

Evans got some practice on the Ventoux in June's DauphineEvans came back after a May lull with a brilliant performance in the Dauphiné time trials, and despite falling victim to a Spanish alliance on the Mont Ventoux, he demonstrated that his climbing form was coming along nicely and he wasn't afraid to attack.

His second place to Alejandro Valverde by just 16 seconds bodes well for his Tour de France since the Caisse d'Epargne rider will most likely be absent in Monaco. However, the Australian faces somewhat limited individual time trialing kilometres to help him gain time, and the Astana team clearly has the advantage over his Silence-Lotto squad in the team time trial.

The strength of Silence-Lotto team has come into question since Cadel Evans stepped onto the Tour podium for the first time in 2007, but this year, at least on paper, he has one of the strongest group of riders to support him in years. He will be backed by fellow Aussie Matt Lloyd, and new recruits Thomas Dekker and Sebastian Lang should add some firepower to the Belgian squad.

3 Denis Menchov (1)

There are two reasons that Rabobank's Denis Menchov has fallen from the number one spot this month: first, he hasn't raced since the day he slip-slided his way to the overall victory in the Giro d'Italia on May 31, and second is the fact that Giro-Tour doubles are rare. Only seven riders have won both Grand Tours in the same year - the last to succeed in this endeavour was Marco Pantani in 1998.

There was no denying that Menchov's performance in the Giro was masterful, but he will face a much harder time in the mountains this July. There will be more attacks, more chaos, and more pressure than in the Italian race, and Menchov hasn't had a history of great luck in the Tour since he won the best young rider classification in 2003.

He fell ill in 2005, cracked in the Alps in 2006, abandoned the race in 2007 after working for Michael Rasmussen only to have his team fire the Dane while he was wearing the leader's jersey for whereabouts issues. Menchov rallied in 2008 to fourth (or third with the disqualification of Bernhard Kohl), but lacked punch in the mountains.

If the race comes down to the Mont Ventoux stage, Menchov will need to be ahead of lighter, punchier climbers like Contador in order to have a chance at taking home his second Grand Tour in a row.

4 Carlos Sastre (3) Race leader Carlos Sastre was thinking ahead to tomorrow's crucial time trial.

Carlos Sastre is an enigmatic rider, and it is never easy to tell how well he's feeling until a critical last pitch of a finishing climb when he either storms away to take the stage win or struggles to hang on.

He showed in the Giro d'Italia that he can and will attack and, just like last year on the Alpe d'Huez, he can and will get away.

He also had one bad day in the Giro which blew his chances at the overall, and his time trialing still isn't to the level of Evans, Menchov or Contador. But with the Mont Ventoux coming on the second to last day, Sastre will have a distinct advantage.

Sastre is a man who has done at least two Grand Tours per year since 2002 - even finishing all three in 2006. He has more Grand Tours in his legs than any of our favourites - even veteran Lance Armstrong. That kind of experience will go a long way toward his chances for the maillot jaune in Paris.

5 Andy Schleck (7)

Schleck the younger showed some of the brilliance which earned him the Liège-Bastogne-Liège title this weekend at the Luxembourg road championships when he soloed to the victory by a large margin. But until then his results have not been those that would indicate this young rider is coming into form to battle for his first Grand Tour victory.

Schleck did not ride the Giro d'Italia, nor did he take part in the usual pre-Tour preparation race, the Dauphiné - Libéré. He instead popped in for some training miles to the Tour de Suisse. Coming into the race as a favourite, he made a crucial breakaway on stage four to pull himself within seconds of the lead on GC, but lost time the next day and was then obligated to work for teammate Fabian Cancellara for the overall win.

Time trialing remains his relative weakness, although he placed a respectable 15th in the 38.5km final test in Switzerland. We therefore haven't been able to judge how well this promising young rider might be going ahead of the Tour except by his performance in his home championships.

He has the distinct advantage this year of being co-leader with his brother Fränk without one Carlos Sastre to confuse matters like last year. The Saxo Bank team will be one of the strongest on paper. A rejuvenated Cancellara will ensure that Schleck loses little to no time in the team time trial.

6 Lance Armstrong (5)

Lance Armstrong took his first win since 2005 in the Nevada City ClassicOne cannot create a list of Tour de France favourites without including seven-time winner Lance Armstrong. Even if he only finished 12th in the Giro d'Italia, and was rarely with the lead group at the top of finishing climbs, nobody knows how to prepare for the Tour better than Lance Armstrong.

Yet we can't help but be a little bit uncomfortable with his lack of racing days since the Italian tour. Considering he had three seasons out of competition before this year and was just returning from a broken collarbone, his performance in May was solid, but we haven't  yet seen the brilliance of previous years in our American hero.

Sure, he won his first race since 2005 this month, but can tag-teaming poor Ben-Jacques Maynes in the Nevada City Classic really simulate a mountain top battle in the Tour de France against the likes of Carlos Sastre?

Brace yourselves, we're going to say it: Armstrong will likely find himself in the role as support rider for Contador, much to the extreme disappointment of his legion of rabid fans.

The Astana team has an enormous amount of talent, and manager turned back to directeur sportif Johan Bruyneel has a plethora of tricks up his sleeves.  You might see Armstrong go up the road, and if he could succeed in a breakaway with enough time that could end up putting Contador in the role of super-domestique instead. It will all depend on the other teams and how they ride.

But it is our feeling that nobody in the peloton is going to let Armstrong get away, and he won't have the kind of form to simply stomp away on his own with the rest of the peloton powerless to stop him as he did in previous years.

7 Levi Leipheimer (7)

Levi Leipheimer (Astana) on the aero bars.Levi Leipheimer has had an amazing few years since Armstrong's retirement. Moving over to the Discovery Channel team in 2007, he finally found the formula for breaking onto the podium in the Tour de France after three years in the top 10. Last year he confirmed that result by placing second behind his teammate Contador in the Vuelta.

Yet we can't help but wonder if Leipheimer's busy early season hasn't hurt his chances for the Tour. He began by winning the Tour of California in February, and continued his amazing form in the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon which he won at the end of March. By the time the Giro rolled around, he began getting worse over the three weeks instead of better.

He still finished sixth overall in the Giro, but how will he ride in the Tour? We don't know because like Armstrong, he stayed in the USA and out of major competitions since May.

In all likelihood, Leipheimer will be a strong helper, an important motor for the team time trial and another card to play for Bruyneel, but we are not counting on him to emerge as the final victor in Paris come July 26.

8 Fränk Schleck (10)

Fränk Schleck's Tour hopes were in question after the Tour de Suisse when he withdrew before the final stages due to knee pain. The injury was ill-timed, and is his second setback of the season after a serious crash in the Amstel Gold Race where he crashed and lost consciousness.

Each time the Luxembourger has rallied back, and his team insists he will be on the team and ready for the Tour come Saturday in Monaco.

He showed strong form in early June by winning his home Tour, but the idea of his heading into a three-week Grand Tour with a dodgy knee earns him a lower spot on the ladder of success than he might have otherwise earned.

9 Michael Rogers (9)

Team Columbia-HTC will roll out new kits in honour of its new title sponsor for the Tour. Yet whether or not it will be Rogers who leads the team remains to be seen. He's been named on the roster, but team manager Bob Stapleton refused to name a GC leader.

Together with Kim Kirchen, the young German hope Tony Martin and talented Belgian Maxime Monfort, the Columbia-HTC squad has plenty of strength for the GC.

Rogers failed to put on a big display in the mountains of the Giro d'Italia, and Martin has been on fire in recent weeks. Kirchen's form is coming around, as shown by a stage win in the Tour de Suisse and a win in his national time trial championships.

The Columbia-HTC squad will focus primarily on delivering fast-man Mark Cavendish to stage victories, and while Rogers is a hugely talented rider we'll be surprised to see him on the podium in Paris, but a top 10 finish is certainly within the realm of possibilities.

10 Christian Vande Velde (11) American Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream) celebrates on the podium.

Garmin's Christian Vande Velde is in the unlucky position of heading into the Tour de France just weeks after returning to racing following serious injuries. The man broke seven bones in his body during a crash in the Giro d'Italia in May - we can't expect him to just pick up where he left off in 2008 and contend for the podium.

It's going to be a test of wills for this American who was showing great promise before the Giro. He may be able to ride himself into form, but with the first mountain test coming on stage seven in Andorra he won't have much time to do so.

We can't count out this scrappy former trackie for a stage win such as the one he took in Paris-Nice from a breakaway, but we're sad to say we fear his hopes of landing on the podium in Paris are remote.

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