Tour preview: Favourites and contenders

By BikeRadar & AFP | Thursday, July 3, 2008 12.43am

The 2008 Tour de France begins in Brest, France this Saturday, and while much has been speculated about who's favoured overall, it's good to lay out all the favourites and contenders in a web-friendly format. For those of you who haven't seen Procycling's official Tour programme, here's a snippet to prepare you for the next three weeks of racing action...

Cadel Evans (Australia)

Cadel evans (l) wins the mount ventoux stage of paris-nice. : cadel evans (l) wins the mount ventoux stage of paris-nice.

Cadel Evans (L) wins the Mount Ventoux stage of Paris-Nice in front of Rabobank's Robert Gesink

Evans has had a steady rise up the Tour's general classification, and missed out on the big prize to Alberto Contador of Spain last year by just 23 seconds. Despite that close call, the talented Australian will know it doesn't necessarily get any easier.

This season the former mountain bike champion from the remote Northern Territory has had promising results and his bid is buoyed by the fact his Silence team is, with the exception of sprinter Robbie McEwen, committed to making him Australia's first Tour champion. Evans is not a natural attacker in the mountains, so will be hoping his team, and especially Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych, stay with him for as long as possible during the tactical minefields that are the Pyrenees and Alps.

Ultimately, the 31-year-old may have to be forced to make the difference by using his superb time trialling skills in the penultimate stage race against the clock over 53km.

Click here to read the Cyclingnews.com interview with Evans.

Alejandro Valverde (Spain)

Alejandro valverde (r) won the recent dauphine libere in front of cadel evans (c).: alejandro valverde (r) won the recent dauphine libere in front of cadel evans (c).

Alejandro Valverde (R) wins the Dauphine-Libere in front of Cadel Evans (C) and Levi Leipheimer (L)

It seems Valverde has been tipped as a yellow jersey champion since he first graced the professional peloton. But after two abandons due to crashes on his first two participations then a promising sixth place finish last year, the 28-year-old from Murcia finally appears ready to launch a more authentic yellow jersey charge.

A proficient climber who over the past few years has steadily improved in the often decisive longer time trials, Valverde has a real chance of becoming the second successive Spanish winner of the race following Alberto Contador, who is absent.

Surrounded by a strong team, including 2006 winner Oscar Pereiro, which has plenty of Tour experience, Valverde goes into the race with perhaps as pschological edge as the reigning champion of the Dauphine Libere race, where he dominated Evans - and showed the Aussie he won't bend easily.

Click here to read the Cyclingnews.com interview with Valverde.

Carlos Sastre (Spain)

Carlos sastre (r) needs to ramp up his mountain climbing for a chance to win the tour.: carlos sastre (r) needs to ramp up his mountain climbing for a chance to win the tour.

Carlos Sastre (R) will need to turn on the mountain climbing turbos to win the Tour

It remains to be seen just how much CSC's official yellow jersey contender has improved his time trialling skills, which have been one of his few handicaps in the past. But there's no doubting Sastre's abilities in the mountains.

With five top ten places since 2002, and with a third and fourth places respectively in 2006 and 2007, Sastre cannot be discounted, especially in the absence of some of the bigger names who kept him off the podium in the past.

However where Valverde and Evans recently displayed their pre-Tour form with first and second place respectively in the Dauphine Libere stage race, Sastre finished way down in 20th after failing to fire up in the race's four mountains stages. He will pick up form as the race goes on, but will have to be on fire to dislodge the two big favourites.

Denis Menchov (Russia)

Vuelta winner denis menchov (l) receives a transfer of tour-winning power from alberto contador.: vuelta winner denis menchov (l) receives a transfer of tour-winning power from alberto contador.

Double Vuelta winner Denis Menchov (L), hoping some of Alberto Contador's Tour-winning mojo rubs off this year

The two-time Tour of Spain winner is generally considered more a pretender than a contender, but he could be motivated to get his yellow jersey bid back on track after the turmoil of last year's Tour. Once his teammate Michael Rasmussen took the race lead, Menchov was reduced to a role, albeit important, of supporting the skinny, climbing Dane. Rabobank's bid then fell apart when Rasmussen was thrown off the race, and eventually sacked, once it was revealed he had skipped several pre-competition doping controls.

A question mark seems to forever hover over Menchov's yellow jersey pretensions, however the reigning Tour of Spain champion is a respected time trialler, and is likely to be one of the main protagonists in the mountains.

Click here to read the Cyclingnews.com interview with Menchov.

Andy Schleck (Luxembourg)

Brothers andy (l) and frank schleck racing in the liege-bastogne-liege.: brothers andy (l) and frank schleck racing in the liege-bastogne-liege.

Andy Schleck (L) has more potential to be a Tour winner than his older brother Frank (R)

The younger of Luxembourg's famous Schleck brothers, Andy is considered a future winner of the Tour thanks to his youth, climbing prowess and cock-sure attitude while racing in the company of more established stage race riders, including his older brother Frank.

Having taken his stock sky high with a runner-up place behind Danilo di Luca in the 2007 Giro d'Italia, Schleck will race his first Tour - an altogether more challenging affair than the Giro - in the company of Frank, who in recent years has been more used to providing assistance in the mountains to Spanish team leader Carlos Sastre.

For this race CSC may leave their options open, depending on just how Sastre are faring once the race hits the critical stages, although both riders may find themselves playing catchup to Evans and Valverde in the time trials.

Damiano Cunego (Italy)

Damiano cunego (r) beats fellow italian riccardo ricco at the tour of lombardy last fall.: damiano cunego (r) beats fellow italian riccardo ricco at the tour of lombardy last fall.

Damiano Cunego (R), beating fellow Italian Riccardo Ricco in the 2007 Tour of Lombardy

A former winner of the Giro d'Italia, the "little prince" who rides for Lampre is a huge talent in stage racing, especially in the mountains. However most will agree that the demands of the Tour, where the pace is faster and more frenetic than in the Giro, are simply too much for the blond-haired Italian.

Cunego can climb with the best of them, and this year skipped the Giro to focus entirely on the Tour, but his time trialling could prove a handicap. Nevertheless, on his one and only participation two years ago Cunego won the white jersey for the top placed rider under the age of 25.

Click here to read the pre-race review of the 2008 Tour de France on Cyclingnews.com. Check back Saturday for live coverage of the 95th Tour de France, and make sure to listen to BikeRadar's Tour podcasts, with Procycling's editorial team Peter Cossins, Ellis Bacon and Daniel Friebe throughout July.

© BikeRadar & AFP 2008 

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