With less than three weeks to go until the Grand Départ in Rotterdam, the 97th Tour de France is shaping up to be one the best. With one of the most spectacular routes and a host of big names riders set to start, Cyclingnews casts an eye on the 12 most likely to figure in the overall.
Alberto Contador (Astana)
It’s hard to look past Contador when it comes to the category of out-right favourite for the Tour. The Spaniard has had an almost flawless build up, racing competitively and successfully since March. Aside from a mild illness and one day at the Dauphine where he looked out of sorts in the time trial, he shines above all others as the man to beat.
Devastating in the mountains, the Pyrenees look like a happy hunting ground and the fact that he’s previewed all four stages in a back-to-back recon suggests he’ll aim to win the race there.
Perhaps the one question mark hanging over the Spaniard is the strength of his team. All eight teammates from last year jumped ship to Armstrong’s Shack, leaving him scrambling around for new recruits. Assuming he’s savvy enough to put the team above himself, Vinokourov should provide able assistance while Pereiro will act as a calming inspiration. Can they look after him on the cobbles?
Andy Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Is this the same Schleck of 2009? It’s hard to say, but last year Schleck won Liege-Bastogne-Liege and went on to run Contador the closest at the Tour. But in 2010 Schleck has been plagued by injury and a distinct lack of results. Yes, he was a contender during the later Classics, but the devastating kick that served him so well in Liege last year has been missing.
His recent performance in the Tour de Suisse shows that he’s on the upward curve and while the Tour starts in around two weeks, the real battle in the Pyrenees is a further fortnight away. With brother Fränk, Cancellara, O’Grady, Breschel and Voigt and Fuglsang, Saxo Bank possess the most well-rounded team in the race. To win the Tour he’ll need to drop Contador in the mountains.
Lance Armstrong (RadioShack)
In many ways Armstrong’s recent Tour de Suisse performance mirrors last year’s Tour in which he sat behind the best climbers, relied on a well-drilled team and, with a mediocre if not a little disappointing time trial, made the podium. The American (above), who has raced more days than Contador this year, will still start the Tour on the back foot, after a crash took him out of the Tour of California, but the 38-year-old has always had a knack for proving his doubters wrong. In Leipheimer, Klöden and Popovych, he’ll have a spine that would get into any Tour team, but if he wants to beat Contador he’ll have to start the Pyrenees with a strong advantage over the Spaniard.
Bradley Wiggins (Sky)
Wiggins was the undoubted revelation of last year’s Tour de France, finishing fourth with a solid set of time trials and a number of gutsy and impressive performances in the mountains. A long, protracted and messy transfer followed but the 2010 Wiggins has put all his eggs in the Tour basket with the full backing of a team and big budget firmly behind him. Can he live up to his billing as a contender? Would another fourth place signify failure or success? The route is certainly harder than last year but after a solid Giro the Brit will head to Rotterdam quietly confident.
Fränk Schleck (Saxo Bank)
Fresh from his win in the Tour de Suisse, Schleck (above) comes into the Tour with perhaps the best form and confidence of his career. Fifth in the Tour the last two years, his time trialing will always been a weakness, but he has shown a slight improvement against the clock. However, with brother Andy the better climber, Schleck might find himself being a super domestique rather than a leader.
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Transitions)
Breaking his collar bone in the Giro wasn’t exactly the preparation Vande Velde was hoping for but the modest American has come through worse. In last year’s Giro he sustained near career-ending injuries before coming back and claiming a superb top ten finish that in some ways eclipsed his 2008 ride. With Wiggins gone and Vande Velde coming back to fitness at the Tour de Suisse, the path is clear for another top ten finish. Ably assisted by the likes of Millar and Zabriskie, Garmin-Transitions will have one of the strongest teams in the race.
Roman Kreuziger (Liquigas)
Kreuziger could well be the surprise package of this year’s race. The Czech has steadily improved from 13th in 2008 to 9th last year and despite not having any stellar results this season, he has ridden solidly in his preparation – finishing 16th in Suisse, 4th in Paris-Nice and 8th in the Volta a Catalunya. On his side is the fact that Nibali – assuming he rides - was thrown into the Giro at the last minute; Basso has already raced and won the Giro and said he’ll support the best rider; and Pellizotti has been ruled out through the biological passport. In theory the path is clear for Kreuziger to step up and deliver.
Ivan Basso (Liquigas)
And what of the Giro d’Italia winner? Well, whether Basso’s Giro performance was true redemption after his doping ban is debatable, but the word from Liquigas’s recent training camp is that the Italian is giddy with excitement about starting the Tour for the first time in four years. No rider has won both races since Pantani in 1998 and it’s hard seeing Basso pull off something similar considering how hard the Giro was and how much tougher the Tour competition will be. He should make the top ten but regardless of that his best role could be as a foil for Kreuziger.
Cadel Evans (BMC)
Rather refreshingly we’ll see a World Champion compete for the yellow jersey at the Tour for the first time since the early 1990s. Evans has matured slowly over the last few years and the last year’s Tour blip aside, is still capable of a top three in this year’s race. While the strength of his team came under fire at the Giro – where he finished second – in Karsten Kroon, George Hincapie and Marcus Burghardt he possesses three of the best riders for the flat stages. Support in the mountains will be lacking and the key will be how much Evans has recovered.
Michael Rogers (HTC-Columbia)
It’s not a stretch to suggest that Rogers (pictured above) has had the most successful season of all the Tour contenders bar Basso, winning Ruta del Sol in the Spring before a sumptuous performance in the Tour of California. Leaving the Tour de Suisse after three stages suggests that while he has raced a lot this year, the Tour France is his big objective. Confiding in Cyclingnews that he was going into California at 90 per cent is an ominous sign that the Australian is about to hit his peak.
Denis Menchov (Rabobank)
The mercurial Russian has won three Grand Tours but never really shone in the Tour de France. Some doubt whether he has a Tour engine, but if things come together for Rabobank’s man, he could push Contador all the way. On his day he has the potential to climb with the best and in Gesink he has a perfect asset on the climbs. The question is whether he can put up a consistent fight for three straight weeks.
Carlos Sastre (Cervelo TestTeam)
Humbled in 2009 and heading into the Tour after an injury-hit Giro, Carlos Sastre is an underdog once again at the Tour de France. The Spaniard though is used to the tag and if fit he should be able to slip under the radar, allowing for stronger riders and teams to wear themselves out. Undoubtedly one of the best climbers in the world, Sastre has never quite hit the heights of 2008, but there’s life in the old dog yet.