The 2012 Tour de Romandie gets underway in Switzerland on Tuesday with a 3.34km individual time trial serving as the prologue. Four tough stages then follow before the race wraps up in the Alpine town of Crans-Montana on Sunday afternoon. And with the two favourites for this season's Tour de France lining up it promises to be a fascinating few days of racing that could have implications for the biggest prize of all this July.
BMC's Cadel Evans has been favourite with the bookmakers for this year's Tour de France from the moment he victoriously crossed the line in Paris last summer, ending his hoodoo in road cycling's premier event. The Australian's cosy victory there suggested that the 2012 race would come down to a straight fight between him and Alberto Contador, and the Spaniard's suspension for doping in February of this year, which rules him out of this year's race, only strengthened Evans' position at the head of the betting market.
But over the last few weeks, many pundits have been talking up the chances of Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky). The 31-year-old Briton finished fourth in 2009 and though he has failed to sparkle in the Tour de France since, the combination of his early season form, this year's course and the firepower of his team has seen his odds for glory at La Grande Boucle tumble. An historic victory at Paris-Nice, the fact that there is well over 100km of time trials in the 2012 parcours and the rude health and versatility of the Team Sky squad has seen Wiggins usurp Andy Schleck as second favourite in the lists of most odds compilers.
Now Evans and Wiggins are set to duel for the first and probably only time ahead of this year's showpiece race. And while we are over two months away from the start line in Liege and much can happen in the meantime, there is a definite sense that momentum and psychological advantage can be gained here.
Evans will be backed up by, amongst others, a strong home-based contingent in the form of Steve Morabito, Johann Tschopp and Martin Kohler as he looks to build on the form he showed by winning the Criterium International in France last month. The 35-year-old is returning from a sinus problem that forced him to miss the Ardennes Classics and as a result he has been playing down his chances of victory this week as he looks to defend the Romandie title he won for the second time in 2011.
"It will be difficult to make the same result as last year, considering how I've felt in the last days," Evans said. "With my infection, I won't be at the same level of competitiveness. But I hope to be there for the hardest stages. I will take it day-by-day. We will see how I feel in the first two stages, and then I will have a better idea of where my condition is."
Team Sky have elected to throw a star studded squad of riders behind Wiggins as they look to get the upper hand on their rivals. Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas and Richie Porte will all line-up alongside him, while extra spice will be added by the presence of Mark Cavendish, who returns to racing following a brief hiatus due to the birth of his first child. It will be the first time that Cavendish and Wiggins have appeared together competitively in Team Sky colours since the road world champion and Tour de France green jersey holder transferred to the British team in the off-season.