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94th Tour de France - ProT
France, July 7-29, 2007
Wide-open Tour prepares to depart London
For the first year, the Tour de France Grand Départ will have no rider wearing the dossard 1 number of the previous year's champion, no clear favourite for the overall win, and a challenging parcours that will likely leave the general classification wide open until the penultimate stage. Cyclingnews' Laura Weislo tips the favourites and a few who could surprise in this year's Tour.
Coming into the second year of the post-Lance Armstrong era, no single rider has donned the iron gauntlet of domination that Armstrong employed. Floyd Landis' feel-good Hollywood comeback story turned horror-show doping case of last year is still unresolved on the eve of the Tour. Instead, over the last year, the sport has been cleaning house in the wake of Operación Puerto.
Gone from Le Tour is Ivan Basso who admitted his 'intent' to blood dope for last year's Tour. Likewise for Jan Ullrich, who remained quiet but was betrayed by his own DNA and retired. Also taking a back seat in this year's race will be CSC Manager Bjarne Riis, who admitted to using EPO to win the 1996 Tour and was guilted into stepping back. Out is green jersey hope Alessandro Petacchi, who used too much asthma medication in the Giro and is facing a possible one-year ban.
What we are left with is a seemingly level playing field, which will make for another exciting and unpredictable Tour. In last year's race, a poker game between the teams let a break take nearly 30 minutes on stage 13, giving Oscar Pereiro the yellow jersey he'd hold until the second to last stage time trial - and he still has a chance to get it back one year later.
With Pereiro unlikely to be given another 30-minute buffer, the favourites for this year's Tour can be drawn from the top of last year's heap with few exceptions. The main exception is Alexandre Vinokourov, who missed out on the 2006 Tour because of Liberty Seguros née Astana links to Operación Puerto via Directeur Sportif Manolo Saiz.
With that behind him, Vinokourov comes to this year's event as a top pick with a ridiculously strong Astana team. 'Vino' is the designated co-captain with last year's second placed Tour finisher Andreas Klöden, with additional support coming from two-time Giro d'Italia winner Paolo Savoldelli and Dauphiné Libéré third place fisher Alexander Kashechkin. Should Vinokourov crack spectacularly in the mountains as he did in the Dauphiné, the boys in teal blue will have Klöden as a backup and 'Kash' and 'Il Falco' as dark horses for the overall.
Contrasting with the bright colours of Astana is the subdued black and red of Alejandro Valverde's Caisse d'Epargne team. Always tipped as a favourite, Valverde has yet to finish a Tour de France. His punchy style in the mountains could very well earn him another stage win to go along with his 2005-mountain top win ahead of Armstrong in Courchevel, but he has yet to demonstrate the type of consistency in a Tour de France that took him to second place in the 2006 Vuelta a España.
Australian hopeful Cadel Evans showed solid form at the Dauphiné Libéré where he finished a close second to Christophe Moreau. If Evans can hone his time trialling form to keep the likes of Vinokourov on a tighter leash, and find a bit of fire in his belly for the demanding ascents of the Pyrénées, Australian fans could see their first countryman on the podium in Paris.
Speaking of Christophe Moreau, the 36 year-old is having a renaissance this year. His time trialling at the Dauphiné was passable, but he rode the mountains like a man inspired. His gutsy move on stage two was more reminiscent of Vinokourov than Moreau, and his victory at Mont Ventoux was simply magnificent. Although the Astana team came unglued and gave up its GC hopes in favour of stage wins, Moreau deserved the overall victory in the Dauphiné; however, the recently crowned French Champion cannot bet on Astana unraveling in the Tour.
Few can deny that the Pyrénées will hold the decisive stage of this year's Tour. Freed from the shackles of his former super-domestique role for Ivan Basso, Carlos Sastre will have to take advantage of the three mountaintop finishes: first at Tignes in the Alps, but more importantly at Plateau de Beille and stage 16's Col d'Aubisque to put big time into rivals who are more gifted at the time trials in order to gain a spot on the podium. Sastre, who tilts a bit more toward being a pure climber than a GC leader, could also take advantage of the steep, narrow slopes of the newest climb of the Tour, the Port de Balès, to put a dent in the armour of his competitors on stage 15.
Another rider freed from service to Ivan Basso is Tour of California champion Levi Leipheimer. The American Tour hopeful will have a powerful Discovery Channel team behind him, but Leipheimer has a tendency to have at least one horrible day in any stage race. He has to give up his habit of cracking in the mountains so that he can let his brilliant time trialling ability shine.
Finally, Rabobank's Denis Menchov is often overlooked, but has managed to quietly get into the top five of Grand Tours and become virtual champion of the Vuelta (after Roberto Heras' EPO positive of 2005) without ever being considered a top contender by the pundits. Menchov is tough to dislodge in the mountains, and is solid in the time trials.
All of that said, there's nothing stopping an outsider like Thomas Dekker (Rabobank), Alberto Contador (Discovery Channel), Fränk Schleck (CSC), Michael Rogers (T-Mobile), or even Tour de Suisse champion Vladimir Karpets (Caisse d'Epargne) from snagging the overall victory.
After all, this year is going to be the clean, wide-open Tour de France that last year was supposed to be, right?