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.

By , Correspondent

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    Cyclist Cadel Evans of Australia answers questions of reporters during a press conference at the team hotel in la Roche sur Yon, western France, Friday. The Tour de France cycling race starts on Saturday, with the first stage over 119 miles starting in Passage du Gois and finishing in Mont des Alouettes, Les Herbiers.
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Before the 98th Tour de France kicked off this morning on the Atlantic coast, a doping scandal already loomed over the peloton.

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.

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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.

The contenders

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.

But former Armstrong teammate Jonathan Vaughters says his US-based team Garmin-Cervélo is coming to this year's Tour with its best team ever.

The Garmin squad pioneered a new antidoping regimen aimed at revolutionizing cycling's culture, and has showed steady improvement since its 2008 debut – one of numerous signals that the sport has become cleaner in recent years.

Contador doping controversy

Last year's race nearly came off without a scandal, until news leaked after the race that winner Contador had tested positive for traces of the performance-enhancing drug clenbuterol.

Contador was subsequently cleared of wrongdoing this winter by the Spanish cycling federation, who accepted his claim that he’d unknowingly ingested the drug from eating tainted beef.

But that ruling is being appealed by the UCI, professional cycling’s governing body, and the World Anti-Doping Agency, which both(?) seek to sanction Contador for the failed test.

The appeal hearing was supposed to be heard by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in June, before the Tour, but it was rescheduled last month for August – at the behest of Contador’s legal team.

Should CAS eventually overturn the Spanish cycling federation’s decision, his result this year would be erased. Contador would also lose his 2010 Tour crown and all titles from this year, including his win at May’s Giro D’Italia.

In a pre-race press conference Thursday, Contador expressed confidence that the situation would be resolved in his favor and said it would be “ridiculous if I win [the Tour] this year and they strip my title.”

With a decision hanging in the balance, Contador’s presence at this race has sparked controversy among fellow riders and fans alike.

During the presentation of his Team Saxo Bank-SunGard at a French amusement park Thursday, spectators whistled and booed Contador, the captain.

Before the presentation, Saxo Bank director Bjarne Riis defended Contador’s choice to ride.

“Everybody would love to have a solution before the Tour, but unfortunately this is what happened. We can’t do anything about it,” said Riis, who won the 1996 Tour and has admitted to doping during his career. “If you don’t agree with what happened, then question the system because we are following the rules.”

Picking up where Armstrong left off

There are a number of American riders competing this year, including many of Armstrong’s former colleagues.

Team BMC’s George Hincapie, who has recently testified in the ongoing Armstrong investigation according to 60 Minutes, will ride in his record-tying 16th Tour.

Other veterans include RadioShack’s age-defying duo, Chris Horner (39 years old) and Levi Leipheimer (37) — winners of the 2011 Tours of California and Switzerland, respectively.

At the younger end of the American rider spectrum, watch out for Garmin’s Tyler Farrar, a strong sprint specialist, and newcomer Tejay van Garderen, HTC-Highroad’s 22-year-old phenom from Montana, who placed fifth at this year’s Tour of California.

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