Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme believes the quality of challenger to reigning champion Alberto Contador will make for the most openly competitive race in years.
The 97th edition of the world’s toughest bike race begins Saturday and, if predictions hold true, will end in Paris on July 25 with Spaniard Contador having defended his yellow jersey.
In between, however, there are stages where tough wind conditions (stage 1) and the cobblestones of stage 3 make the race treacherous, well before the peloton arrives in the Pyrenees for a third week of thrilling and decisive racing.
On paper the hilly profile of the race looks tailor-made for Contador, the talented climber who won in both 2007 and 2009.
But with the presence of seven-time winner Lance Armstrong for the last time, and three or four other potential challengers in Andy Schleck, Cadel Evans, Ivan Basso and Bradley Wiggins, Prudhomme believes the Spaniard won’t have it so easy.
“Alberto Contador’s the favorite obviously, but there’s a lot of potential winners spread out among the rival teams,” Prudhomme told AFP.
“Last winter, and for the first time in cycling, there was a transfer period akin to the one in football.
“There’s Contador, Armstrong, the Schleck brothers (Andy and Frank), Evans, a strong Liquigas team supporting Basso, Wiggins with a new Sky team — guys who are spread out in different teams which, I hope, leads to different attacking strategies.
“The race profile has been done so that, from stage 1, things can be shook up.”
Contador, the winner in 2007 and 2009, is considered the best climber in the business — and is none too shabby in stage racing’s other key cycling discipline of the time trial.
This year there are a total of six high mountain stages including three summit finishes, one long time trial and no team time trial.
Contador could have an early mountain to climb barely a few days in: stage 3’s 213km ride from Wanze in Belgium to Arenberg, where the inclusion of seven cobblestoned sections have given his rivals some ideas.
The threat of losing time due to punctures or crashes is so serious that several key contenders, including Contador, have ridden the stage in northern France to gauge what will be required on the day.
If he gets past those obstacles, Contador is expected to sit and wait for his rivals to attack in the two mountain stages in the Alps, in order to keep his powder dry for the Pyrenees.
In the event the race is still undecided, stage 19‘s pancake-flat time trial over 52km from Bordeaux to Pauillac will have the final say.
Contador finished with a more than four-minute lead on Luxemburger Andy Schleck last year, with Armstrong pipping Wiggins to an unlikely third place to finish on the podium.
Australia’s Evans is a two-time runner-up, once to Contador and once to Carlos Sastre, while Basso, the reigning Giro d’Italia champion, returns to the race for the first time since his expulsion in 2006 for his suspected implication in the Operation Puerto doping affair.