Tour de France Wildcards

Six Tour riders who could provide this year's je ne sais quoi

Goals have been set, teams have been picked and scenarios calculated. For all the brave decisions made, none can control every permutation that will emerge on the road of France over the next three weeks. The following six individuals may help to shape the stories that will make up the 96th edition of the Tour de France.

Bert Grabsch (Columbia-HTC)

At first, the inclusion of Grabsch in the final nine of the freshly re-named Columbia-HTC was a bit of a surprise. A quick perusal the first week of the Tour, however, and suddenly the selection of the current World time trial champion made a lot more sense.

Having just defended his national time trial title, the German will be a key member of the Columbia-HTC team during the stage 4 team time trial in Montpellier. The American squad will be hoping for a repeat of the performance that saw them win the Giro d'Italia's opener in May; especially if one of them has claimed the yellow jersey in the Tour's opening stages.

Fumiyuki Beppu (Skil-Shimano)

Japanese sensation Yukiya Arashiro warms up. He is preparing for the Tour de France.On July 4 in Monaco, Beppu and compatriot, Yukiya Arashiro (BBOX Bouygues Telecom) doubled the total number of Japanese riders to have started the Tour de France.

Following in the footsteps of Kisso Kanamuro (1926 and 1927 editions) and Daisuke Imanaka (who raced for Polti in 1996) both riders will start the 2009 race aiming to become the first from their island nation to finish le Grande Boucle.

However, neither will be there simply to make up the numbers. Beppu rode for Discovery Channel for three seasons prior to joining Skil-Shimano in 2008. While he may not boast the most imposing of palmares, a recent win in the mountains classification of the Rud du Sud is enough to suggest that he could be a threat if he can find his way into one of the Tour's inevitable breakaways.

Skil-Shimano will be anxious to justify their inclusion the race and that, combined with a little bit of form, could be heady mixture enough to see Buppu throw up a few surprises on the road to Paris.

Heinrich Haussler (Cervélo TestTeam)

Cervélo's star rider Heinrich Haussler looks in extremely good condition.Heinrich Haussler will be one of the most exciting riders to watch in his third Tour de France. The Australian-born German has enjoyed a break-out season so far this year and he appears ready to back up his growing reputation.

Four years at the now defunct Gerolsteiner squad appear to have been the perfect incubator for Haussler's talent. Launching into his first six months with Cervélo TestTeam he won the first and final stage of the Volta al Algarve in Portugal before finishing second at both Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders.

It was the finish of the Italian classic that reveals the danger to rivals that Haussler represents. While narrowly beaten la primavera by Mark Cavendish, the Manxman was the only rider capable of closing the gap established by Haussler in the final 250m of that race. If 25-year-old Haussler can repeat the scenario on the roads of France in July, he's a good chance of a stage win, or three if Thor Hushovd isn't firing on all cylinders.

Amaël Moinard (Cofidis)

Amaël Moinard is not a name that has come up in much discussion of home-grown French talent. Most of the attention has, justifiably, focused upon his teammate and co-captain, David Moncoutié and Quick Step's Sylvain Chavanel.

In last year's Tour de France Moinard finished 15th overall. A solid result, but not in itself enough to mark the Frenchman out as one to watch this year. However, look back at how he got there and all of a sudden he becomes a much more interesting prospect. Part of a breakaway group on stage 11 into Foix, he backed up that day's effort with a strong final week to work is way up, arriving in Paris well inside the top 20.

Like most Frenchmen who get a sniff of the upper reaches of general classification there is the risk that he will suffer from delusions of grandeur. But, if Moinard can take advantage of the pre-race focus being attracted by others, he showed last year that he can perform in the critical second half of the Tour.

Fortune favours the brave and while the French cycling public don't need another hero, if he can focus his attention on stage wins, Moinard could be fun to watch.

Linus Gerdemann (Milram)

Germany's Linus Gerdemann fields questions at a press conference with this new team, Team Milram.Good form, growing confidence and captain of his team; he's got the pieces, now all Linus Gerdemann has to do is put them together.

His last visit to the Tour de France, with T-Mobile in 2007, resulted in a stage win to Le Grand-Bornard and a day in yellow. Since then things haven’t been quite so bright for the Münster native. A crash last year in the time trial at Tirreno-Adriatico ruled Gerdemann out for most of what would be his first and only season with Columbia-Highroad. He returned in time to win the Copa Agostoni and Deutchland Tour but his convalescence kept him away from cycling's biggest stage.

An end of season transfer to Milram was a logical career step for Gerdemann. With Columbia's resources increasingly being deployed in the service of Mark Cavendish, opportunities for Gerdemann to pursue his own objectives looked to be drying up. The move away now gives him the opportunity to demonstrate whether or not he can be a Grand Tour contender.

A recent win at the Bayern Rundfart is a good sign, but results at the Tour de France are always a tricky puzzle to assemble. However, if Gerdemann gets a roll on, he'll be intriguing to watch.

Robert Gesink (Rabobank)

Yellow jersey Robert Gesink came in 1'29 down on stage winner Sylvain Chavanel after having to do all the chasing himself.If Denis Menchov can be the first rider to do the Giro-Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998, then chances are Robert Gesink will have played a big role. At the announcement of their Tour team Rabobank manager, Erik Breukink, singled out the talented Dutchman as a key component in Menchov's campaign.

Breukink's predecessor, Theo de Rooij, sent up the first smoke signals of Gesink's potential when he promoted the then 20-year-old from Rabobank's Continental development squad to the ProTour team in time for the start of the 2007 season.

Two years later Gesink has begun to repay the faith shown in him and send signals of his own. Third at Amstel Gold and, most recently, fourth overall at the Dauphiné Libere show he's ready to mix it with the big boys. It's perfomances like those that could see Gesink light up the roads of France through July.

What's more, the Tour de France has a history of lieutenants assuming control of the company. If Menchov falters, it could just be that by July 26, Robert Gesink has launched his own Dutch Revolt.

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