Tour de France: The Contenders

Our pick of the nine riders to watch in 2009

This year's Tour de France kicks off on Saturday with a 15.5km time trial in Monaco. The big news is the return of seven-time winner Lance Armstrong, but the American is up against some strong competition. Here's our rundown of the nine riders to watch in 2009.

Alberto Contador (Esp|Astana)

Described as the "best stage racer on the planet" by Armstrong, Contador is the only odds-on favourite. He won the race in 2007 as part of Armstrong's Discovery Channel team and claimed the Tour of Italy and Spain titles in historic fashion in 2008 when Astana were not invited to the Tour.

But with Armstrong now racing at Astana, Contador has two reasons to aim for a second yellow jersey. Months after Armstrong's arrival last autumn the American piqued the Spaniard's pride by saying he "still had a lot to learn" as a bike rider. Since then relations have been courteous but far from cosy between the pair.

It would be no surprise if Contador's campaign is part motivated by his need to show Armstrong who really is the team leader. A strong time trialist and arguably the best climber in the peloton, the 26-year-old will be hard to beat.

Andy Schleck (Lux|Saxo Bank)

The winner of the Tour's white jersey for the best placed rider aged 25 and under last year, Schleck is slowly living up to his reputation as a future winner of the yellow jersey. Last year's solid Tour debut came on the back of a second place finish in the 2007 Giro d'Italia, and he has already won this year's prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege one-day classic.

The younger of the Schleck brothers – Frank also races with Saxo Bank (formerly CSC) and finished sixth overall last year – can climb with the best, is not afraid to attack and this season has tried to improve his relative weak event of the time trial. A big plus to Schleck will be team support, which proved decisive in former leader Carlos Sastre winning the race last year.

Denis Menchov (Rus|Rabobank)

Apart from Contador, Menchov is the only Tour contender in 2009 who has also triumphed in both the three-week Tours of Italy and Spain. Only a month after his dramatic victory at the Giro d'Italia, Menchov could finally join Contador in laying claim to what would be a first Tour de France yellow jersey.

Menchov, like Sastre, is a rather discrete rider but he isn't afraid to attack and doesn't lose too much time to more talented rivals in the time trial. If the Russian hadn't been caught napping during a frantic finish to the third stage last year – and if third-place finisher Bernhard Kohl had been caught doping before the race finished – Menchov would easily have finished higher than his eventual fourth place in Paris.

Cadel Evans (Aus|Silence-Lotto)

As runner-up the past two years, some detractors have already labelled Evans the Tour's 'nearly man'. But, with a stronger team, Evans would have done justice to his overall climbing and time trial talents and already won the race.

Injured early in last year's race, Evans bore the pain as he fought valiantly against the much stronger CSC team. But, for the second year in a row, his yellow jersey dream evaporated in the race's penultimate stage time trial where Sastre punched above his weight to win the yellow jersey.

This year Evans is happy not being the big favourite, which should allow him to concentrate on following, and not being followed, in the mountain stages as is usually the case. Not everyone's favourite, but certainly a contender.

Carlos Sastre (Esp|Cervelo)

Last year's winner has had a quiet lead-up to the season's big rendezvous but that does not mean he won't be ready. The 34-year-old Spaniard has loads of Tour experience and has been a regular top 10 finisher since his second participation, with CSC, in 2002. And, he showed at last month's Giro, where he won a stage, that he can still climb when it matters.

Fans will be interested to see how he fares in a big pressure situation since his move to Cervelo, where he will count on experience more than youth to ward off the threat of Astana and CSC in the mountains. Sastre's strengths lie in his steady, not spectacular, climbing. If he can transfer the secrets of CSC's winning approach to his new team, he could become Contador's biggest rival.

Lance Armstrong (USA|Astana)

With seven yellow jerseys in his cabinet it is hard not to include Armstrong among the race favourites. Even after three years out of the sport, Armstrong finished a respectable 12th overall in the Giro d'Italia, only weeks after recovering from a fractured collarbone, as he played mainly a support role for teammate Levi Leipheimer. And Armstrong has bundles of Tour experience.

However, several factors could conspire to leave the 37-year-old Texan fighting for a place in the top five. In theory, Contador is Astana's best chance of the yellow jersey, so to gamble on Armstrong would be risky. Going on recent evidence it appears the American may no longer have the ferocious will, and unrivalled leg power, that made him the boss in 1999-2005. But if Contador falters, Armstrong may be asked to step up.

Outsiders

Levi Leipheimer (USA|Astana)

Another Astana rider with plenty of major Tour experience, Leipheimer will ride for the seventh time at the race, in which he finished third in 2007 thanks largely to a heroic penultimate stage time trial performance.

A steady climber who also excels in time trials, the Californian, on paper, could win the Tour in the right circumstances. But for Astana to place all their hopes on Leipheimer, Contador and Armstrong would have to have fallen way down the general classification.

Andreas Kloeden (Ger|Astana)

A two-time podium finisher in the world's toughest bike race, Kloeden returns to the race only a month after it was alleged he was involved in doping at the 2006 Tour, when he finished second while racing for T-Mobile. A strong time trialist who can also climb, a win for Kloeden would likely not win the hearts of the organisers.

Michael Rogers (Aus|Columbia)

The Tour de France has yet to see the best of Michael Rogers, who missed the race last year because he had not fully recovered from the serious crash which sent him flying out of the 2007 race while he was in the virtual lead.

Rogers, who rode with former T-Mobile teammate Kloden at the 2006 Tour, is now racing with the Columbia team who are likely to play a big role in the race. However the Aussie, a strong time trialler and decent climber, will have to have good legs to beat the mountain specialists like Contador, Sastre, Schleck and Menchov.

You can follow the 96th Tour de France on BikeRadar or on our sister site Cyclingnews.com.

Click here for the full start list, with details of all the teams and riders.

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