Contador facing multi-pronged threat to title
Alberto Contador admits he expects to come under attack at every possible turn as he bids to defend his yellow jersey at the 97th edition of the Tour de France.
Contador, the champion in 2007 and 2009 who also won the Tours of Italy and Spain in 2008, will saddle up for the start of the three-week epic Saturday as the favourite to top the podium in Paris on July 25.
However the Spanish climbing specialist knows that obstacles over which he has little control - attacks from rivals, crashes and even the weight of living up to expectations - will make his task doubly harder.
"Nothing is more difficult than winning a race for which everyone says you're the favourite," he said. "You know that any moment of weakness will be exploited by your opponents."
With a total of six high mountain stages including three summit finishes, one long time trial and no team time trial, the race looks tailor-made for Contador.
The Astana rider is ranked just ahead of 2009 runner-up Andy Schleck, with seven-time champion Lance Armstrong among a handful of challengers that also includes Italian Ivan Basso, Britain's Bradley Wiggins and Australian Cadel Evans.
However Contador's outlook could all change as of Tuesday, depending on what damage has been done by the third stage's 213km ride from Wanze in Belgium to Arenberg in northern France which features seven sections of cobblestones.
Contador inspected the stage a few months ago in the company of retired Belgian one-day specialist Peter Van Petegem.
But some rivals believe it was a futile exercise that will mean nothing when the jostling to get to the front ahead of the cobblestones will prompt panic, cause crashes and leave many top contenders counting their losses.
"Someone will lose the race that day, I just don't know who it's going to be," said Garmin-Transitions team boss Jonathan Vaughters.
"It could be Lance (Armstrong), it could be Contador, could be (Andy) Schleck. Whatever happens, there will be some happy people that day, and some not so happy."
After his impressive third place finish last year, a massive question mark has followed Armstrong to the 2010 edition following a season upset by a crash at the Tour of California.
Yet the 38-year-old American, who battled cancer in 1998 to come back and win the Tour seven consecutive years from 1999-2005, appears to be finding form at the right time and has a strong RadioShack team at his sides.
His first serious test was at the Tour of Switzerland last month, where he had the Schleck brothers Andy and Frank, second and fifth respectively at the Tour in 2009, struggling to keep up on the hardest mountain stage.
Saxo Bank's Stuart O'Grady, whose job is to protect the Schlecks for as long as possible in the race, said he believes that chinks in Contador's armour give Armstrong a real chance of causing an upset.
"Alberto's obviously the big favourite, but does he have a stronger team than he does last year? I'm not so sure, so it should be interesting," the Australian told AFP. "Mentally, Armstrong's ready. We saw that in (the Tour of) Switzerland.
"On the big mountain day he was right up there and had the Schlecks in trouble - and he's going to get better and better. I would say definitely top five, if not podium."
After the obstacles of a first week that will also allow the sprinters to shine, the race heads into the Alps for three stages but only one summit finish.
Yet the real yellow jersey battle will not be unleashed until the final week in the Pyrenees, where the legendary Col du Tourmalet will feature twice - once on stage 16 and a day after the final rest day, on stage 17.
Although a penultimate stage time trial could change the standings slightly, Andy Schleck is hoping to launch the bulk of his challenge - to Contador, or anyone else - in the Pyrenees.
"I'm not here to fight Contador. I'm here to win the Tour," said Schleck. "There are many others (challengers) and I am ready to fight all of them."
Iron man O'Grady hints at final Tour of duty
The dream of contributing to at least one more yellow jersey triumph is keeping Stuart O'Grady's love affair with the Tour de France afloat.
Yet the Australian with the job of helping secure the yellow jersey for brothers Andy or Frank Schleck, two years after Carlos Sastre's triumph in 2008, has hinted this could be his last.
"I don't know. I'm not sure," O'Grady said hesitantly when asked if this would be his final Tour campaign, which comes amid reports that team owner Bjarne Riis is struggling to find a replacement sponsor ahead of Saxo Bank's pull-out at the end of the year.
"I'm not getting any younger, although the motivation's still there."
At 36 years, O'Grady, one of 11 Australians competing this year, is still not the granddaddy of the world's toughest bike race.
But while he has never been suited to racing for the yellow jersey, the thick-skinned Adelaider wins hands down when it comes to recovering from crashes to help the bids of others.
In preparing for the Tour in 2006 he broke several ribs in an early season crash in Italy.
A year later he abandoned the Tour the same day as fellow Aussie and crash victim Michael Rogers after crashing on a descent, fracturing eight ribs, a right shoulder blade, right collar bone and three vertebrae, and puncturing his right lung.
He punctured his lung again, and suffered a broken right collar bone and a broken rib, at the 2009 Milan-SanRemo classic when another rider came down in front of him.
Earlier this season the Aussie joined Lance Armstrong in crashing during stage five of the Tour of California, where he broke his collarbone again.
Only a solid performance at the Tour of Switzerland in June helped secure his place on Saxo Bank's Tour roster.
"The Tour of Switzerland was a big challenge," he told AFP. "I only had three or four days on the bike before it so if I couldn't get through there I wasn't going to put my hand up to be part of the Tour team.
"This game's way too hard to just come here to say you've just done another Tour. I want to help the boys to try and get as high on the podium in Paris.
"The body's fine, we did the cobbles yesterday and didn't have any problems at all."
Although the seven cobblestoned section on stage three's ride from Wanze in Belgium into Arenberg in northern France will be the first big test for many overall contenders on Tuesday, the bulk of O'Grady's job comes in the last half of the race.
It is in the Alps, then the third week in the Pyrenees, that he will have the job of keeping the Schlecks fed, watered, protected from the wind and in general good condition.
He believes this year's course gives Andy, who finished runner-up to Alberto Contador last year when Frank finished fifth, a better pop at the crown than in 2009.
"Last year when the race course was pretty negative in a way," he added. "Some of the climbs you couldn't attack because the top of the mountains were too far from the finish... which left it all down to (be decided on) the Mont Ventoux and the time trial
"This year it's completely different. It's an attacking rider's course and the split with Contador and Armstrong brings another interesting aspect into it and I think it will be the best Tour in a long time."
Farrar takes aim at British fast man Cavendish
American Tyler Farrar is primed to upset British rival Mark Cavendish's plan to dominate the bunch sprints on the Tour de France this month.
Cavendish crushed the sprint field by winning a stunning six stages last year for a total tally of 10 wins in just two editions.
The Isle of Man sprinter, who rides for HTC-Columbia, has his eye this year on winning the points classification's green jersey that he missed out on last year after a tumultuous duel with Norwegian Thor Hushovd.
With Hushovd having declared his relative lack of interest in repeating his ambition and Belgian specialist Tom Boonen not competing in the race Cavendish's path to the sprinters' main prize looks relatively unhindered.
Farrar meanwhile comes into his second Tour less nervous, brimming with confidence after stage wins in the 2009 Tour of Spain and 2010 Tour of Italy, and hoping to avoid the mistakes that left him finishing in Cavendish's wake in 2009.
While regarding the Manxman as a big threat, the 26-year-old Garmin-Transitions sprinter is hoping Cavendish's comparatively quiet season so far goes in his favour.
"I don't think he's as dominant this year as he was last year coming into the Tour," he said.
"I still consider him one of the main contenders in all the sprints of course but I think the sprints are a bit more open this year than they were last year.
"Last year I was a little less confident because I didn't know (what to expect). Now that I've done (the race) I know what to expect a bit more, and I know that I'm good enough to race for the win," he added.
While the battle for the race's coveted yellow jersey hits the heights in a decisive third week in the Pyrenees, the sprinters get their main chance to shine on on stages one, four and five in the first week.
Farrar's team manager Jonathan Vaughters believes the key to breaking Cavendish's monopoly is to dent his confidence from the outset.
"Cavendish is someone who needs a lot of momentum and confidence around him, so the first stage is certainly crucial for him," said Vaughters.
"Tyler is used to fighting tooth and nail ever day, so win or lose on the first day he will come out every stage after that fighting."
While considered the most prolific sprinter in the world, Cavendish this season has raced less, won less, and thus made less of an impact - on the road.
Off it, he has hit the headlines for making rude gestures that got him pulled off a race by his team, and for doing little to diminish a brash and carefree attitude that has only helped promote a 'bad boy' reputation.
Last month a crash caused by the Manxman on the Tour of Switzerland caused uproar, although Cavendish's team maintain it is his fiery ways on the bike that are crucial to his success.
Farrar is known to be far more laid-back - and Vaughters believes that what will count on the day is not attitude, but top end speed.
"I think what's important is being really fast for 150 metres. Tyler does it on power and talent, he's maybe not so much of a gunslinger (as Cavendish) but he still seems to win races."
© AFP 2010