Yellow jersey favourite Alberto Contador could strike a first psychological blow to his Tour de France rivals when he lines up for the first stage, a 15.5km time trial, tomorrow.
However the Spaniard is up against the might and determination of Swiss Olympic champion Fabian Cancellara, who has vowed to do everything he can to stop Contador from claiming the Tour's first big prize.
Cancellara normally excels in longer time trials but, as shown over the past few years, there seems no end to the Saxo Bank rider's talents.
Formerly a one-day race and time trial specialist, he won this year's Tour of Switzerland – normally seen as a race for all-rounders who excel on the climbs.
Cancellara has not ridden the technically-demanding
"I feel in good shape and that's all that really counts now. I know how strong I am and when I feel this strong, I don't need to go out and know the whole race course," he said.
Switzerland's Fabian Cancellara, winner of this year's Tour de Suisse
If Cancellara wins he is likely to try to defend the yellow jersey, at least until the next big rendezvous – the team time trial over 39km held on the fourth stage.
But if Contador triumphs, it could give the Spaniard a cushion of comfort ahead of three testing days of climbing in the
And it will help put paid to recent speculation that his team-mate Lance Armstrong, the seven-time Tour champion, may at some point take over the team's leadership.
In the Pyrenees Contador and his Astana team are likely to play a major role in the first skirmishes in the mountains as the fight for command heats up.
Also in contention on Saturday will be
But with all the yellow jersey favourites keen to limit their losses on the first stage, most of them – including defending Tour champion Carlos Sastre and Russian Denis Menchov – will hope to finish among the top 10.
Japan's Beppu aiming to be the first to reach
Japanese rider Fumiyuki Beppu is aiming to become the first cyclist from the land of the rising sun to finish the Tour de France.
The 26-year-old former national road race champion, who turned professional with Discovery Channel in 2005, will be competing for Skil-Shimano when the first stage begins tomorrow.
And, along with Bbox Bouygues Telecom's Yukiya Arashiro, Beppu wants to be the first rider from
"The last time a Japanese rider was on the Tour was 13 years ago, so this is a really big thing for me and it's very exciting," said Beppu, also a former national under-23 champion. “It's such a big race."
Beppu and Arashiro are hoping to improve on the progress of Kisso Kawamuro, the first rider from Japan to try his luck back in 1926 and 1927, who failed both times in his quest to reach Paris.
Daisuke Imanaka was the last Japanese rider to take part in the Tour when he was a member of the Polti team in 1996, but he also never saw the French capital and its finish line.
O'Grady picks up the pieces for 13th Tour campaign
Having a punctured lung blow back up to its full capacity in time for the Tour de France is one of the few positives that Australian cyclist Stuart O'Grady has enjoyed this season.
But as he prepares for another hard slog during the three-week epic he is aware that busting a gut to help another team-mate win the coveted yellow jersey for the second consecutive year is likely to prove a painful affair.
O'Grady, part of the CSC team that helped Carlos Sastre win the race last year, almost never made Saxo Bank's squad after he broke some more ribs and punctured a lung in a crash at the Milan-SanRemo in March.
Now recovered, albeit "just in the nick of time", he is hoping his 13th Tour campaign will lead to a repeat of last year's success, this time for one of the Schleck brothers, Andy or Frank.
But he believes that despite Andy's obvious talents – he was runner-up on the 2007 Giro d'Italia and won the Tour de France white jersey for the best placed rider aged 25 and under in 2008 – the Luxembourger can afford to be patient.
Saxo Bank are confident in Schleck's abilities but O'Grady admits that dealing with the huge psychological pressures that come with winning the Tour need to be digested slowly.
"To be honest I think Andy is still a bit young (to win the Tour), but it’s all experience. He has to be given that pressure, going through the motions and seeing how he performs," said O'Grady.
"He's shown he's got the talent, the engine's there and now he's just got to learn a bit of self-management, and that's what we're here for. We're not just out there getting him water bottles, we're kind of counselling him in a way and telling what to do and what not to do.
"He's one of those guys that, in five years time, he's going to have won the Tour, and he'll win the Tour at least three times. But as much as I'd love to say it will be this year, he's coming up against some tough opposition and there's a lot of responsibility now that Carlos has moved on."
That doesn't mean that Sastre will have it any easier. The 34-year-old Spaniard benefited hugely from CSC's collective efforts last year before the team became Saxo Bank.
And O'Grady says Sastre is unlikely to have the same kind of commitment at Cervelo, who have ambitions elsewhere, notably Thor Hushovd's pursuit of the race's green jersey for the points competition.
"At Cervelo it's going to be a lot different. They've got Thor down for the green, maybe (Heinrich) Haussler too. There's going to be a split in the camp, it's an extremely different team strategy," said O'Grady. "Last year we were 100 percent behind him, and it worked out. But Carlos is going to have his hands full."
As for Evans, O'Grady believes his Aussie compatriot, who has finished runner-up the past two editions, faces a mammoth task because of Astana's return to the race.
Belgian cycling team Silence-Lotto (SIL)'s rider Cadel Evans, of Australia
"He (Evans) had a massive opportunity to win the Tour last year but the team just wasn't strong enough," said O'Grady. "And this year with Astana coming back it's going to probably be twice as hard for him to win the Tour. I'm not going to say Cadel can't win the Tour, but this year it's going to be extremely difficult."
As for his own perspectives, O'Grady will find out in the coming days what roles – all of which are crucial in any Tour-winning team – he will be expected to play. But given his injury misfortune in the past, he knows he is lucky to be riding the world's biggest bike race – even if he hates the training that goes with it.
"I sometimes question why I put myself through this pain and suffering again," said O'Grady, who, in 2007, suffered a career-threatening crash during the Tour de France.
"It would have been so easy to throw in the towel so many times. I could have said, 'everything's been broken, enough's enough', but I just don't feel ready to do that.
"I still get excited about coming back to racing. Until I lose that feeling that I'm not just taking up space, and I can be of service to the team then all the better."
Basso backs Armstrong for tour success
Italian team leader Ivan Basso (Liquigas/Italy) reckons Lance Armstrong is aiming high
Former Tour of Italy winner Ivan Basso has tipped his great rival Lance Armstrong to challenge for an eighth Tour de France title.
Armstrong won the last of his seven yellow jerseys in a row in 2005 but this year at the age of 37 he has made a remarkable comeback to professional cycling. In May he finished 12th in the Tour of Italy despite breaking his collarbone in a crash only six weeks before.
"Given his great experience and formidable character, Lance Armstrong will be aiming high at the Tour de France," said Basso, the 2006 Giro d'Italia winner.
Lance Armstrong (Astana/KAZ) rides during the 20th stage of 92nd Giro d'Italia in May
"Armstrong finished the Giro in 12th place but in those 16 minutes given up to the winner Denis Menchov he showed at 37 great improvement and powers of recovery, given he broke his collarbone at the end of March and spent three years out of competition."
The Liquigas team leader twice stood on the podium alongside Armstrong at the Grand Boucle, finishing third in 2004 and second in 2005. But following his Giro win he was banned for two years for doping and he made a disappointing return to major stage racing in this year's Giro, finishing fifth having started as race favourite.
© AFP 2009