PARIS, June 26, 2009 (AFP) – Potential Tour de France champions at this year’s race, held on July 4-26 over a total approximate distance of 3459.5km:
Alberto Contador (ESP/Astana)
Described as the “best stage racer on the planet” by seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, Contador, on paper, has nothing to prove. He won the race in
2007 as part of Armstrong’s Discovery Channel team and claimed the Tour of Italy and Spain titles in historic fashion in 2008 when Astana were not invited to the Tour. But with Armstrong now racing at Astana, Contador now has two reasons to aim for a second yellow jersey. Months after Armstrong’s arrival last autumn a few unwisely-chosen words from the American and his team manager, Johan Bruyneel, piqued the talented Spanish all rounder’s pride.
Since then relations have been courteous, but far from cosy. It would be no surprise if Contador’s campaign is part motivated by his need to show Armstrong who really is the team boss. A strong time trialler and arguably the best climber in the peloton, Contador will be hard to beat.
Andy Schleck (LUX/Saxo Bank)
The winner of the race’s white jersey last year for the best placed rider aged 25 and under, Schleck is slowly living up to his reputation as a future yellow jersey champion. Yet even before 2008 the younger of the Schleck brothers — Frank also races with Saxo Bank (formerly CSC) and finished sixth overall last year — made a solid Tour debut in 2008 he wowed fans with a second place finish in the 2007 Giro d’Italia. The winner of this year’s prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic, Schleck can climb with the best and this season has tried to improve his relatively weak event of the time trial. A big plus to Schleck will be team support, which proved decisive in former leader Carlos Sastre winning the race last year.
Denis Menchov (RUS/Rabobank)
Apart from Contador, Menchov is the only Tour contender in 2009 who has also triumphed in both the the three-week Tours of Italy and Spain. Only a month after his dramatic victory at the Giro d’Italia, Menchov could finally join Contador in also laying claim to the Tour de France yellow jersey. Menchov, like Sastre, is a wily rider but he is not afraid of attacking and does not lose too much time to more talented rivals in the time trial. If the Russian hadn’t been caught napping during a frantic finish to the third stage last year — and if third-place finisher Bernhard Kohl had not been doping — Menchov would easily have finished higher than his eventual fourth place.
Cadel Evans (AUS/Silence-Lotto)
Some detractors have, perhaps prematurely, labelled Evans as the ‘nearly man’ having finished runner-up the past two years. But arguably, if Evans had a stronger team, he would have done justice to his climbing and time trial talents and already won the race. Early in last year’s race Evans’ bid was hampered by injury from a crash. He bore the pain as he fought valiantly against the much stronger CSC team but, for the second year in a row, his yellow jersey dream evaporated in the race’s penultimate stage time trial where Sastre punched above his weight to win the yellow jersey. This year Evans is happy not being the big favourite, which should allow him to concentrate on following, and not being followed, in the mountains stages as is usually the case.
Carlos Sastre (ESP/Cervelo)
As usual, the 34-year-old Spaniard has had a quiet lead-up to the season’s big rendez-vous but it remains to be seen if he will really be ready to fire on all cylinders. Sastre has loads of Tour experience and has been a regular top ten finisher since his second participation, with CSC, in 2002. Fans will be interested to see how he fares in a big pressure situation since his move to Cervelo, who have been solid all season but are racing together at the Tour for the first time. Sastre’s strengths lie in his steady, not spectacular, climbing. If he can transfer the secrets of CSC’s winning approach to his new team, he could become Contador’s biggest rival.
Lance Armstrong (USA/Astana)
With seven yellow jerseys in the bag it’s hard not to include Armstrong among the race favourites. Even after three years out of the sport Armstrong finished a respectable 12th overall in the Giro d’Italia, only weeks after recovering from a fractured collarbone, as he played a support role for teammate Levi Leipheimer. And, Armstrong has bundles of Tour experience.
However several factors would conspire to leave the 37-year-old Texan fighting for a place in the top five. In theory, Contador is Astana’s best chance of the yellow jersey, so to gamble on Armstrong could be risky. Going on recent evidence it appears the American may no longer have the ferocious will, and unrivalled leg power, that made him the boss in 1999-2005. But, who is ruling Lance out?
Christian Vande Velde (USA/Garmin)
Vande Velde had a great Tour campaign last year, keeping pace with the leaders in the mountains and finishing with the best time triallists in the races against the clock. He is a steady climber but, racing against the likes of Astana, Rabobank and Saxo Bank the likeable American would have to conjure up a killer instinct to shake off the likes of Contador, Menchov, Sastre and Evans. There are also doubts that Garmin have the firepower needed to support Vande Velde in the high mountains.