This year's Tour de France is gearing up to be one of the most tightly contested in years, according to some of the yellow jersey contenders out to topple race favourite Cadel Evans.
The Australian will start the race's 95th edition this Saturday as the favourite following his runner-up place last year. But the 31-year-old Silence-Lotto team leader has been warned he will have to earn the right to succeed absent Spanish champion, Alberto Contador of Astana, in the high mountains.
Luxembourg's Kim Kirchen, who finished seventh last year, believes Evans will come out top of the yellow jersey contenders in the race's two time trials. But the Team Columbia rider, who beat Evans into second place on the steep finish line of the Fleche Wallonne one-day classic earlier this year, said the Australian won't have it so easy on the tough climbs of the Pyrenees and Alps.
"There will be a lot of attacks and he will lose time in the mountains. I think there are actually a few guys who climb better and faster (than Evans), guys like (Carlos) Sastre and Andy and Frank Schleck, and (Alejandro) Valverde - who in the Dauphine (Libéré) was very strong," Kirchen told AFP.
Spanish ace Valverde, who has also dominated Evans in some prestigious races this season, finished sixth overall on the Tour last year. The 28-year-old says he would be happy with a podium place, but after tailoring his entire season to winning the Tour it is clear his ambitions lie elsewhere.
Valverde has worked to improve his time trialling, and recently beat Evans in the 31km race against the clock at the Dauphine Libéré stage race, which he eventually won pushing Evans down into second place. He has accepted he may lose time to the Australian in the race's two time trials, but added: "I think the race is going to be won in the mountains.
"After the Pyrenees there are three tough days in the Alps. For me, it's the key to this Tour."
Another Spaniard, Carlos Sastre, is a former podium finisher who will spearhead CSC's yellow jersey bid - alongside outsiders Frank and Andy Schleck, the latter having shown his promise with a runner-up place at last year's Giro d'Italia. The time trial is Sastre's weakness and a poor run of results at the Dauphine have left question marks over his form.
But CSC team manager Bjarne Riis, the 1996 winner who admitted to having used performance enhancer EPO (erythropoietin) to win the yellow jersey, seems quietly confident.
"Our leader is Carlos but we have options with Andy and Frank, who can be up there with the best, especially Andy," said Riis. "I feel we can be very competitive, especially in the mountains."
Australian Stuart O'Grady, who will be racing to help Sastre beat the likes of Evans and Valverde but then team up with Evans for the Australian team at the Olympic Games, said the strength in depth of CSC has given them a distinct advantage.
"You can't win the Tour de France by yourself, and without having a strong team. Lance Armstrong showed that for seven years," he said. "I don't see how our team could get any better. We really have every angle covered. And with Andy and Frank you can say we've got a three-pronged attack. Cadel will come into the race with a different kind of pressure. Now, the whole world is looking at him. But good luck to him."
Russian Denis Menchov will be Rabobank's yellow jersey hope, and he hopes the relative inexperience of his team will not prove a handicap to his ambitions.
"I hope we have a strong enough team, but I know my job and I know what I have to do to win," said Menchov, the reigning Tour of Spain champion. "I have big ambitions for this race, and have as good a chance as any of the contenders."
© AFP 2008