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Le Tour: The Contenders.
It really is one of the best fields in recent years lining up tomorrow at the Passage du Gois to start this 98th Tour de France. Our own Ed Hood sorts out who’s hot and who’s not…

Who’s the favourite?
Let’s throw in a few facts to start:

Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank & Spain) will be the only rider to start le Tour who has won it before – three times, in fact.
• He hasn’t been beaten in a Grand Tour since 2007.
• He shares with Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Felice Gimondi the distinction of having won all three Grand Tours.
• He’s now aged 28 which means he probably hasn’t yet ‘peaked’ as a stage race rider.

In other words, it’s unlikely that anyone can beat him.

What about his pronouncement that ‘he was tired after the Giro?’ He was third in the Spanish elite time trial champs and second in the road race; he’s just where he wants to be – this is a man who understands how his body works.

There’s little doubt that if he wins this Tour then he’ll go for the Vuelta too, no one, not even Eddy Merckx has attempted that. The ‘treble’ would be a publicity coup of gargantuan proportions – something that Bjarne Riis must dream of.

The big black cloud is of course the CAS verdict on the Clenbuterol positive from last year’s Tour. Personally, I think they’ll rule in his favour – but then I said that Menchov couldn’t win the Giro.

Who’ll fill the rest of the podium?

Andy Schleck (Leopard & Luxembourg) has a Grand Tour pedigree; he’s twice finished second in le Grande Boucle and pushed Contador closer than the Spaniard would have liked, last year.

Despite the fact that he’s only 25, to have performed at the level he has, he must have excellent self awareness – so only he knows if his off/on performance at the Dauphine is a ‘blip’ or a real worry.

But a tangible negative factor for the Luxembourger is that the man who is now sitting in Contador’s team car – Bjarne Riis – knows every nuance of the Leopard leaders’ riding style and that’s not going to be to Alberto’s disadvantage.

‘What about Frank?’ do I hear you say?
Brothers are always falling out; this pair is no different – and personal hassle is the last thing you need on a Grand Tour.

If the top two steps on the podium are sorted (maybe) the battle for the third spot is much more interesting; in alphabetical order we have:

Ivan Basso (Liquigas & Italy) I simply cannot see it – the results haven’t been there and his self confidence cannot be high. Liquigas will see how he’s going and if the form isn’t there then they’ll go for stage wins with their young bucks like Daniel Oss and Kristijan Koren.

Cadel Evans (BMC & Australia) With GC wins this year in Romandie and Tirreno, a lighter programme and the fact he has huge experience, it’s not impossible to think of Evans as making second spot, never mind third.

Robert Gesink (Rabobank & Holland) he’s still young but his climbing abilities are beyond question and he has a very solid team behind him. However, he has considerable expectation upon him; but maybe he’s already thinking about letting the GC guys squabble whilst he waits for l’Alpe d’Huez?

It would be cool to see the ‘Dutch Mountain’ go back to the rightful owners.

Chris Horner (Radio Shack & USA) a professional since 1995, Horner is on his second continental pro career and at 39 shouldn’t really be winning Pro Tour races – but he is.

Pais Vasco last year and California, this year – and he’s British hill climb champion Dan Fleeman’s (Raleigh) tip for the podium.

Levi Leipheimer (Radio Shack & USA) at 37 you could forgive Leipheimer for adopting the ‘road captain’ role, mentoring the young riders and looking forward to starting his coaching business. Not a bit of it; second in California, and a last gasp winner in Suisse –and don’t forget that this man has stood on the Tour podium before.

The team has had an excellent year; but there’s the rub – “too many cooks . . .

Samuel Sanchez (Euskaltel & Spain) he’s targeted the race this year, he can climb, is one of the best descenders in the peloton; and he’s not a bad sprinter at the end of a long hard race – see Beijing 2008! And when it comes to a team made for the mountains, look no further – two stage wins for the ‘Orangemen’ in the Giro, don’t forget.

And being robbed of the podium place by Menchov in the final chrono last year will still hurt.

Jurgen Van Den Broeck (Lotto & Belgium) one thing about Jurgen is that he’s no big mouth – the PR girl at Lotto was almost using a cattle prod on him at the press conferences, last year. But that’s no bad thing, Belgian fans like that and he talks with his legs – that Dauphine stage win was exactly what he needed.

The team will be ‘pour Philippe’ early in the race but Gilbert is too clever to burn them out defending a jersey he’s bound to lose.

Bradley Wiggins (Sky & GB) ‘I would be surprised if Wiggins ever made the Tour top 10 again’ – the words of countryman (well, they’re both British but David is a Scot) and ex-team mate David Millar (Garmin) in the ‘The Guardian’ newspaper on Tuesday. I see it a little different; the Londoner won the Dauphine – no mean feat – and the British elite road race title last Sunday, so he’s in great form.

If the mop flops well for him, a podium is possible – that last chrono in Grenoble could be the key.

But, all of that said, it would be nice if someone ‘did a Fignon’ and appeared from nowhere.

You can’t see that?

No, me neither; but we can dream.


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