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2011 Tour de France Preview: Top five riders to watch

Remember in 2007 when Unibet.com was an international level cycling team with Tour de France aspirations? Unfortunately for them, the star-crossed outfit never got the chance to chase the yellow jersey, in part because its title sponsor was an on-line gaming outfit, which was a no-no in the eyes of certain powerful French race organizers.

But that doesn’t mean Unibet was pushed out of the cycling business all together. Indeed, among the many gaming props currently available on its website are a bevy of Tour de France bets.

There are off-the-wall options such as, How many stages will Dutch riders win? (The over-under is 0.5.) And there is the standard bearer, Who will win the race? We’ll use the later set of odds to set the table for who are the top five riders to watch at this years Tour de France, and throw in a long shot for those who really like games of chance.

The Favorite

Alberto Contador at an event in Spain following his 2011 Giro d'Italia win. AFP Photo
If the legal creek don't rise, Contador is as close to a safe bet as you can get for the 2011 Tour win. AFP Photo

Alberto Contador (Spain) Saxo Bank-Sungard: 1.65-to-1

Why he can win: When on form, Contador, 28, is the best climber in the world. Discussion over. He’s proven that time after time over the last four years, winning six grand tours, including a brutal 2011 Giro d’Italia that had enough climbing to make Sir Edmund Hillary’s knees buckle. On top of that climbing prowess, Contador can time trial with the best in the world, especially in the three-week race format. Put those two skill sets together and it’s a lethal — and heretofore — unbeatable combination.

What could trip him up: Some would argue Andy Schleck’s name belongs here, as he’s the only rider to really make Contador sweat these last few years. And pair that with the fact that Contador will be attempting to pull off the rare Giro-Tour double, which even he has admitted will be difficult, and Schleck’s chances improve.

But, as has been the case in cycling for a while now, it’s the off-the-bike issues that could be most problematic for Contador. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Spaniard is the subject of an on-going doping investigation, after he tested positive for the banned clenbuterol during last year’s Tour de France. Contador claimed the failed test was caused by tainted beef, and so far that alibi has stood up. Right now it looks like final resolution won’t come until after the Tour, but this being the soap opera’esque world of professional cycling, another out-of-left-field plot twist would surprise no one. Contador’s name is on the start list … for now.

(Related: Alberto Contador doping timeline, updated)

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