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Tour de France

2011 Tour de France Preview: Top five riders to watch

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Remember in 2007 when 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)

The Challenger

Andy Schleck (Luxembourg) Leopard-Trek: 3.25-to-1

Why he can win: In the unlikely case that Contador stumbles or doesn’t start the race at all, Schleck has proven he’s capable of climbing away from the rest of the Tour de France field. The 26-year-old snagged a pair of summit-finish stage wins at last years Tour, and were it not for an ill-timed dropped chain he might have had a third. This year’s race includes four summit finishes.

2010 Tour de France, stage 15. Andy Schleck's chain drop.
Doh! Andy Schleck, in yellow, goes looking for his chain on stage 15 of the 2010 Tour. Contador, third in this photo, soon zoomed by and took over the yellow jersey. AFP Photo.

What could trip him up: Schleck suffers from the same malady that’s plagued many of history’s great climbers, he’s not much of a time trialist. A year ago, he lost 31 seconds to Contador in the final time trial — and that was considered a good day. The good news this year is that the route includes just one individual time trial, and whatever time Schleck loses there, he might be able to make up in the earlier team time trial because of the superior team behind him. Bottom line, he’s got a puncher’s chance to win the race, which is more than anyone else can say.

The Fab 30

Ivan Basso (Italy) Liquigas-Cannondale

2011 Tirreno-Adriatico, stage 5. Ivan Basso. Photo: Brad Kaminski
Mr. Consistency: Ivan Basso is a safe bet for the podium. But the top of the podium is a long shot. Photo: Brad Kaminski © VeloNews

Why he can win: Basso is a two-time Giro d’Italia winner, so the Italian knows what it takes to win a grand tour. He’s also a fabulous climber, which will be a huge asset in a race with four critical mountaintop finishes. And like Schleck, Basso benefits from the lack of time trials in this year’s race. Can he win the overall? Not likely. Is he the favorite to finish on the Tour podium for the third time in his career? Absolutely.

What could trip him up: Like Schleck, Basso’s time trial skills are limited. He also has a resume blighted by a doping suspension, and some argue that’s why he’s never returned to the form that made him runner-up to Lance Armstrong at the 2005 Tour de France.

Robert Gesink (Netherlands) Rabobank: 30-to-1

2010 Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal, Robert Gesink. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |
Gesink scored a dramatic solo win at the 2010 Grand Prix Cycliste de Montreal. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

Why he can win: Yet another rider who benefits from this year’s climber-favoring route around France, the wispy Gesink was born to go uphill on a bicycle. The still-maturing rider proved his mettle a year ago, finishing a surprising sixth at the Tour, and has continued that ascension with third-place finish at this year’s testing Tour of the Basque Country. Like Basso, Gesink has a solid shot at the Tour’s final podium.

What could trip him up: It remains to be seen whether this Dutchman can develop the multi-dimensional skill set required to win the Tour. He’s had some flashy recent time trial finishes, including a win at the Tour of Oman. But a Middle Eastern tune-up race in February is a long way from France in July. A year ago, Gesink was 109th in the final time trial. That’s to say nothing of the questions surrounding his ability to be a team leader, something the 25-year-old has yet to prove.

Cadel Evans (Australia) BMC: 30-to-1

2010 Tour de France stage 19: Cadel Evans. Photo: Graham Watson |
Above average: Evans in the final time trial of the 2010 Tour. Photo: Graham Watson |

Why he can win: There was a time when the question wasn’t, If Evans can win the Tour, but when? Twice the Aussie finished on the Tour podium (2007, 2008), and even at 34, he’s still considered one of the sport’s top climbers. He’s also an above-average time trialist.

What could trip him up: Over the years, Evans’ No. 1 enemy has been himself. Calm under pressure is never a phrase attributed to the BMC team leader, who’s often seems nervous and edgy, and is frequently chippy with press. On top of that, his BMC team is more suited to the spring classics than to defending the yellow jersey in July.

The American Long Shot

Chris Horner (USA) RadioShack: 50-to-1

2011 Amgen Tour of California, stage 4: Chris Horner on Sierra Road. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |
Horner killed 'em on Sierra Road at the Tour of California. Photo: Casey B. Gibson |

Why he can win: After winning the critical Sierra Road stage at the Tour of California, the always-effusive Horner declared to the world, “Nobody can drop me except Contador.” Certainly that was the case in the Golden State, as Horner put on a tour de force, easily dispatching the likes of Schleck and everyone of Team Garmin-Cervélo. On top of that, Horner is a solid time trialist (sixth on California’s tough Solvang circuit this year) and he’s one of the sport’s most cerebral riders. Think coach on the field and you’re on the right track. He’s said a podium finish is the goal, and it’s actually not a totally outrageous proposition.

What could trip him up: For starter’s Horner, 39, is not even the leader of his team. Instead, he’s one among four potential captains in a group that also includes former Tour podium finisher — and recent Tour of Switzerland winner — Levi Leipheimer, former Tour podium finisher Andreas Kloden, and Slovenian climbing sensation Jani Brajkovic. All four will get a chance to show their stuff when the climbing begins. Have a bad day on the wrong day, and you’ll be fetching bottles the rest of the race.

And the winner is?

No way we’re betting against Contador, unless of course something changes with his on-going doping case and he doesn’t start the race — or gets yanked out somewhere along the way to Paris. In that case, we’ll take Schleck. He’s a 1.45-to-1 favorite in Unibet’s secondary odds that don’t include Contador — just in case. Otherwise, slot Schleck second and take the long shot flyer on Horner for third.

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