By Gerard Knapp
The expulsion of Contador and Astana from this year's Tour de France would seemingly place Australian rider, Cadel Evans (Silence - Lotto) as the odds-on favourite for this year's race. Evans finished only 23 seconds behind the young Spaniard last year, and has been completely focused on making up for that loss in the 2008 edition.
Earlier this year at a press conference in Adelaide during the Tour Down Under, he was asked for his comments on how he would ride if Astana was not invited to the TdF. At the time, he jokingly said that he hoped that Astana would be in this year's Tour de France as there needed to be "a strong team to control the race".
Indeed, even a hostile Bruyneel pointed to Astana's strength, with the 2008 team featuring Contador, Levi Leipheimer (third in the 2008 TdF) and two-time TdF runner up, the former T-Mobile rider Andreas Klöden. "We maybe have a too strong team now?” Bruyneel said in response to the ASO decision.
It's likely that all the attention come July will now focus this year on the Belgian squad, placing additional pressure on Evans, the Australian rider who's been able to steadily improve at the Tour and largely sneak under the radar of the world's media. Evans has gone from eighth, to fourth and last year, second overall, as he has consistently improved in the world's biggest bike race.
The Silence - Lotto team has been bolstered for 2008 with the hiring of 2007 Discovery Channel rider Yaroslav Popovych, the Ukrainian strongman who rode consistently at the front of the peloton in the 2007 edition of the Tour de France. 'Popo' was a key team rider for both Contador and prior to the young Spaniard's short reign, Lance Armstrong. It looks like 'Popo' and the rest of the Silence - Lotto team will be facing a strong test of race leadership come this July.
Silence-Lotto directeur sportif Henrik Redant told Cyclingnews, "The problem is it [Astana's expulsion] will now put a little more pressure on us as, they were such a strong team, and having two guys there that can collaborate means that they were able to control the race much more. This is really going to change the Tour this year. We will have to wait and see how it is ridden."