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Who are the front-runners for this year's yellow jersey?

We’ve pulled on the lycra shorts, shaved our legs and eaten lots of pasta – it’s Tour time again. But who are the favourites for the big prize?

THE TOUR DE France gets underway this Saturday where 198 riders will race 3,430km in just over three weeks.

There are four mountain-top stage finishes and just one individual time trial, 42.5km in length, so it is very much a route which encourages the climbing specialists.

The outstanding favourites for victory will once again be Andy Schleck and Alberto Contador. Although there will be other riders who will be aiming to capitalise should these two heavyweights falter.

Here’s a rundown of the GC contenders and their chances of taking the Yellow Jersey all the way to Paris:

1. Alberto Contador (Saxo Bank) - The Spaniard has beaten Andy Schleck into second place in each of the last two Tours de France although the margin of victory last year (4’11″) was considerably less than in 2009 (39″).

Farcically, Contador’s positive test for Clenbuterol during the rest day of last year’s Tour has still not been settled. The Court of Arbitration for Sport have set a hearing date in early August which means the 2011 Tour will be over before we know for sure who won the 2010 edition.

This year-long legal battle which Contador has landed himself in will surely be having a pyschological impact on him. He dominated the Giro d’Italia in May to win that race for the second time, but the level of scrutiny and media attention will be significantly more intense at the Tour.

The recent Giro was also one of the most gruelling Grand Tour routes in recent memory and it remains to be seen whether Contador has recovered in time to reach another peak in form for July. This is also the first occasion that Contador will be riding two consecutive Grand Tours in the one year.

It appeared that Contador chose to rode the Giro because at that stage it seemed that he may not have been allowed to ride the Tour. It has transpired that he now will definitely be at the startline on Saturday, but at what cost? None of the other contenders rode the Giro and Contador will be the most fatigued he has ever been coming into the Tour de France.

2. Andy Schleck (Leopard-Trek) – While Contador is 28-years-old and at the peak of his powers, Andy Schleck is two and a half years younger and still improving. But for a dropped chain on Stage 15 last year, the outcome could have been quite different for Schleck. The winner of the young rider’s jersey for the past three years was able to match Contador in the mountains and has focused over the winter on further improving his ability in the time trial.

Schleck hasn’t won a race this year and his results in stage races have been less than spectacular. But this is the Luxembourger’s style in the build up to the Tour. He has had no injuries or illnesses to interrupt his preparation, so although he hasn’t shone at all this season, rest assured that he has timed his form to perfection.

Andy Schleck will also have his brother Frank present and accounted for this year, barring accidents. Last year, Frank succumbed to the perils of the pavé on Stage Three and broke his collarbone. This robbed Andy of the potential for a two-pronged attack on Contador in the mountains. However, the Schlecks have regularly displayed a tactical ineptitude in the past, so it remains to be seen whether they can effectively utilise the double-team option.

Andy Schleck also hasn’t forgotten the fact that Contador did not wait for him on the Port de Balés last year after he dropped his chain and he has vowed to take revenge should the roles become reversed this time around.

3. Cadel Evans (BMC Racing) – The Australian former World Champion has finished second in the Tour de France twice before (2007, 2008) but at 34 years of age, time is running out to make the move on to the top step of the podium.

Evans is a grafter. He hangs on in the mountains and is capable in the time trials. As such, it’s hard to see how he will take any time out of Contador and Schleck. On top of this, his team is relatively weak. But Evans is a cute tactician and he knows how to measure his efforts. If Contador and Schleck spend too much time marking each other, as they did on Stage 14 last year when they almost came to a stand still, Evans may be able to capitalise.

Evans certainly has unfinished business at the Tour. He rode in the Yellow Jersey last year through the agonising pain of a broken elbow. On his one day as race leader, he got dropped on the final climb, lost the Yellow Jersey and broke down crying in the arms of a team mate at the stage finish. If things don’t go according to plan for Contador or Schleck, Evans could become the first Australian to win the Tour de France.

Gavin Cooney
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4. Ivan Basso (Liquigas) – Last year’s Giro d’Italia winner has finished on the podium of the Tour de France before, in 2004 and 2005. But that was before his ban for doping related activity and his subsequent return to racing. Since 2005 his only other appearance at the Tour was last year where, suffering from a Giro hangover, he only managed 32nd place.

Although he won the 2010 Giro, Basso is not the rider he was when he won the same race in 2006. He has shown that he is solid in the mountains but he rarely attacks. He will need to do more than just wheelsuck if he is to lift himself once more on to the podium of the Tour de France.

However, he will have the full support of his Liquigas team who will be one of the strongest in the race. The team are on a roll of seven Grand Tours where all nine riders have finished. No other team (post WW2) can match this astonishing record.

5. Robert Gesink – It has been over twenty years since a Dutch rider made it on to the podium of the Tour de France (Erik Breukink in 1990). Robert Gesink provides the Netherlands with its best chance in years of setting this record straight.

Gesink is a skinny climber who will be capable of staying in the front group on the mountain top finishes. His reputation as a poor time triallist precedes him, but this is somewhat unfair. Gesink has greatly improved his performances against the clock. He won the early season Tour of Oman by winning a summit finish and a time trial back to back. In the time trial in the Tour of the Basque Country he only conceded 50 seconds over 24km to one of the world’s best in the discipline, Tony Martin.

Gesink mightn’t be capable of challenging for the overall win, but the Dutch drought on the podium of the Tour might just end this year.

[All pictures PA]

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About the author:

Cillian Kelly  / Twitter: @irishpeloton

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