Tour de France kicks off: Who to watch
Alberto Contador, coming off two consecutive wins, is the clear favorite. But he's stuck in a legal battle over allegations of doping that could nullify any titles he wins this year.
Les Herbiers, France
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The favorite, Spain's Alberto Contador, already tested positive for a banned drug last year. But with the legal wrangling still in process, he's being allowed to compete and could well win his fourth Tour victory before the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) decides his case.
If Contador wins the race but loses the case, that would make this the second Tour in five years to have its victor defrocked by a doping scandal.
In addition, the rightful winner of this year's Tour would be deprived of the opportunity to stand in yellow atop the podium in Paris on July 24 – an irreplaceable moment of personal satisfaction and public glory worth millions of dollars in endorsement opportunities.
"We wanted a quick resolution, before the Tour, but it looks like it was too much to ask," said Tour director Christian Prudhomme earlier this week.
Pedaling hard against Contador for victory is a crop of rising stars, most prominently Andy Schleck. The lean Luxembourger has finished second to Contador two years running and is one of the only riders who can stick with the Spaniard on the Tour's grueling mountain stages.
Compared to years past, this Tour will be a climber's paradise. To celebrate the race's 100th anniversary in the Alps, organizers have set up a climb-heavy route with four mountaintop conclusions, including the highest finish line ever in course history.
With a new team, Leopard Trek, and his brother Fränk back after crashing out of last year’s race in the first week, Schleck will have some help during the expected Alpine battles with Contador. (Two years ago, the Schleck brothers tag-teamed up the steep climbs with Contador, giving each other opportunities to conserve energy while the other led.)
This year, however, Andy Schleck must avoid setbacks like last year’s chain malfunction on stage 15, which gave Contador a controversial opening to take advantage of his competitor's misfortune and gain the leader's yellow jersey.
"Last year was last year,” Schleck said in a press conference Friday. “It's completely over as far as I'm concerned and I just hope nothing happens this year.”
While Schleck is considered to be Contador’s biggest rival again this year, former world champion Cadel Evans, runner-up in ’07 and ’08; Dutch climber Robert Gesink; and 2008 Olympic winner Samuel Sanchez are among a long list of contenders for a podium finish.
Lance Armstrong won’t compete this year; the seven-time winner retired from the Tour after a 23rd place finish in 2010 and is awaiting the outcome of a federal investigation into alleged illegal doping practices during his storied career.