By Gregor Brown
On the eve of another post-Lance Armstrong Tour de France, it is anyone's guess as to who will don the maillot jaune of best overall rider when the three-week race concludes in Paris. There are only a handful of contenders, but just how they will perform on the parcours with decreased time trial kilometres but more mythical mountain stages is unknown.
When organisers Amaury Sport Organisation (ASO) announced the route of the 95th Tour de France, it was clear that a rider who could excel in the mountains and hold his own in the time trials would have a shot at the overall win. The riders' climbing legs will be put to the test with four mountaintop stage finishes – Super Besse (stage six), Hautacam (stage 10), Prato Nevoso (15) and L'Alpe d'Huez (17) – while their time trialing abilities will be put to use in only 82.5 kilometres over two stages (4 and 20).
Due to the problems in Team Astana 2007, Alberto Contador, the defending champion and winner of the Giro d'Italia will not be at the Grand Départ in Brest. The 25 year-old followed Johan Bruyneel from Team Discovery Channel to Astana over the winter, a team which carried with it some baggage in the eyes of the ASO. Last year, Alexander Vinokourov's positive doping test during Tour forced the team to withdraw; adding to the doping positives of Matthias Kessler and Andrey Kashechkin, the team completely reorganised its management, but that was not enough to get an invite to the biggest cycling race.
His absence narrows the list of favourites to just five men: Cadel Evans (Silence-Lotto), Damiano Cunego (Lampre), Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne), Denis Menchov (Rabobank) and Carlos Sastre (CSC-Saxo).
Australia's Evans – top ten in the last three years, including second in 2007 – is the hottest pick for the 2008 title. Last year, just 23 seconds separated him from a Tour victory. This year, his morale has surely been raised thanks to one of his best spring campaigns in years – with wins in Vuelta a Andalucía (stage), Paris-Nice (Mont Ventoux stage), Coppi e Bartali (overall and stage) – and the recent announcement that the Silence-Lotto team would be 100 percent behind him, leaving top sprinter Robbie McEwen to look after himself in the bunch gallops.
"I've always had the idea I want to prove to the team what I'm capable of, so I can win their faith and hopefully what I'm capable of is winning their belief in me," Cadel said in a recent interview with Cyclingnews. "They will work for me and work 110%. Two years ago I wasn't sure of myself, if I could win the Tour and now all the indications are there that I can, so..." Adding power to Evans' punch will be new recruit Yaroslav Popovych, former lieutenant of Armstrong.
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