Seven riders from the United States of America lined up for the start of this year's Tour de France in Monaco on Independence Day. They ranged from a 37-year-old seven-time winner, to a 25-year-old sprinter making his Tour debut. Cyclingnews takes a closer look at the US riders on show in the world's greatest race.
Lance Armstrong (Astana)
What's left to say about Armstrong? He's a seven-time Tour winner returning after a three-year retirement; a rider who grabs headlines with his every move; a rider who has polarised fans around the world; a rider who could win the Tour de France this year.
The fact that his season was disrupted by a broken collarbone in March and that he subsequently missed vital training in the build up the Giro shouldn't be a factor. What might count against him is his age, and at 37 he'll be looking to become the oldest ever winner. Add in the rumours about his team's future and Armstrong himself has said that he is "nervous." But as everyone knows, you can't write this man off. Armstrong is a man who has overcome huge obstacles to get where he now is, and has devoted much of his life to the single goal of winning the Tour de France.
David Zabriskie (Garmin-Slipstream)
His 2009 season has been a mixed affair. It started out well, with second overall in the Tour of California and third in Vuelta a Castilla y Leon, but since then he's failed to regain top form and was almost invisible in the two individual time trials at the Giro.
Still, it is a major accomplishment that the quirky American is even able to race Grand Tours this year. In the second stage of last year's Giro, he crashed on a railroad crossing and fractured vertebrae, which kept him out of racing until the Beijing Olympics in August. Zabriskie stormed back to win the national time trial title and claimed bronze in the world time trial championship. In this year's Tour he'll focus on the team time trial and the two individual time trials (as will teammate Bradley Wiggins).
Christian Vande Velde (Garmin-Slipstream)
However, fortunes can change in a split second, and they did on stage three of the Giro, when the American crashed heavily, fracturing vertebrae, suffering a cracked pelvis and two broken ribs. So hurt was Vande Velde that he could barely cycle up his steep driveway at home in Gerona and there was some doubt as to whether he would even make the start in Monaco.
After some careful rehabilitation, Vande Velde made the start line in the Tour de Suisse and used the race as preparation for the Tour. Where he'll finish come the end of the race is a bit of an unknown but after last year's breakthrough performance he'll have the confidence to match the best in the peloton.
Danny Pate (Garmin-Slipstream)
Pate's other notable success this year came in the Critérium International. He nearly caught Jens Voigt on the line of the stage 2, settling for second place, which was enough to secure third place on the overall classification.
Levi Leipheimer (Astana)
His 2009 season started with a dominant display in the Tour of California and he carried on the run of form, winning the opening time trial of Castilla y Leon and the overall title. Leipheimer then took on the leadership role at Astana for the Giro, but he didn't have enough left in his tank to keep up with the top finishers and finished sixth overall.
The question will be whether he has recovered from his injuries and such a demanding spring. Rumours of division within the team based on an Armstrong/Contador axis can't have made things any easier. The big question might revolve around who Leipheimer works for: Contador or Armstrong?
George Hincapie (Columbia-HTC)
In fact, Hincapie was the only one of Lance Armstrong's lieutenants to ride in all seven winning Tours, and although he doesn't have any wins this season, the 36-year-old has put in a number of top 10 finishes to prove there's life in the old dog yet.
Hincapie will serve as a jack-of-all-trades in the Tour - acting as the team's road captain, helping Mark Cavendish in the sprints and supporting overall candidate Kim Kirchen. "The team really needs me here, and I hope to do a great job for them," he said. And, oh yes, he would like to win another stage himself.
Tyler Farrar (Garmin-Slipstream)
But the pinnacle of the season for the young sprinter was the third stage of Tirreno-Adriatico in March. He won the mass sprint in that stage, beating Mark Cavendish of Columbia. "Cavendish is the best sprinter in the world; everyone wants to beat him," said Farrar. "My condition is good and I have a very strong team here. Julian Dean and the others did a huge amount of work for me. ... It's my most important win to date."
It was his only sprint win this season, though. He came close several times in the Giro, but he still needs to find the final kick to be able to beat the likes of Cavendish and Alessandro Petacchi.
Farrar will once again be up against the "big boys" in the Tour, facing such notable names as Thor Hushovd, Oscar Freire and Daniele Bennati, as well as, of course, Cavendish, who is one year younger than the America. Farrar will have Julian Dean to pull for him, but it is questionable as to how he will be able to hold up against the others.
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