Tour of Spain wide open in Contador absence

Schleck, Sastre among favourites

The third and final Grand Tour of the season gets underway in Spain on Saturday, with several leading riders eyeing their chances amid the absence of the world's top road racer Alberto Contador.

Three-time Tour de France winner Contador is skipping his home Tour, which he won in 2008, after a hard-fought victory in France in July.

He joins two of his Spanish countrymen - last year's winner Alejandro Valverde, who is serving a suspension for doping, and Samuel Sanchez, who was injured in a crash in the final mountain stage of the Tour de France - on the absentee list.

But two of the top three finishers in the Tour de France - Luxembourg's Andy Schleck and Russia's Denis Menchov, a two-time Tour of Spain winner -- are among those ready to take full advantage.

The 2008 Tour de France winner Carlos Sastre also fancies his chances, even at age 35. "I see a great opportunity to win this time," he told the Spanish sports newspaper Marca.

He named Menchov as the favourite, and mentioned Andy Schleck's brother Frank as a top contender. But "without Contador I don't know what will happen, no team will control the race," said Sastre, who this month announced he will ditch his Cervelo team for Geox next season.

Menchov says he too is hungry for another title and sees the Schleck brothers of the Saxo Bank team as his biggest rivals. "The course is very mountainous, but that's what I do well," he told Spanish sports daily AS.

"The important thing is that I'm motivated. I'm not tired mentally or physically, I'm fine, I'm going out with the intention of winning, but it will never be easy," said the 32-year-old Rabobank rider.

The second and third finishers in this year's Giro d'Italia, Spain's David Arroyo and Italy's Vicenzo Nibali, are also on the starting list.

Britain's sprint king Mark Cavendish will be making his Tour of Spain debut, hoping to extend his remarkable string of stage wins in major Tours that includes 15 victories in France over the past three years.

He leads an impressive line-up of sprinters that includes Spain's three-time World Road Race champion Oscar Freire, Italy's Alessandro Petacchi, winner of the Tour de France green jersey last month, and Norway's Thor Hushovd.

But the course, which includes six summit finishes in eight mountain stages, is expected to favour the climbers.

Many believe the event could be won or lost on the penultimate stage, a 168.8-kilometre course that ends atop the 2,250-metre Bola del Mundo in the Guadarrama mountain rang northwest of Madrid. The 17th-stage individual time-trial could also be crucial.

The 65th edition of the Tour of Spain will also break new ground with the leader's jersey changing colour from the traditional gold to red and the first stage taking place at night.

The 21-stage event gets underway at 10pm (2000 GMT) on Saturday with a 16.50-kilometre team time-trial in the southern city of Seville and will finish in Madrid on September 19.

A total of 198 riders from 22 teams are due to compete. But organisers this year controversially left out the US-based Radio Shack team, which includes riders such as Americans Levi Leipheimer and Chris Horner and veteran Spaniard Haimar Zubeldia.

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