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Tour de France: Top 10 contenders (part one)

Alberto Contador starts as overwhelming favourite – but can Andy Schleck end the Spaniard’s reign?

The 2011 Tour de France is just three days away – here RoadCyclingUK profiles the top 10 contenders set to line-up at the Grand Depart in Vendee.

More than 3,430km of racing lies ahead of the 198 riders who, from 22 teams, will make up the peloton.

How many of our general classification candidates will feature in your RCUK Trek Fantasy Tour de France team? Prizes include a Trek Madone 5.2 worth £2,800 and a Bontrager Race XXX Lite Carbon Clincher wheelset worth £1,800.

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Alberto Contador

Age: 28
Country: Spain
Team: SaxoBank-Sungard
Tour de France 2010: 1st
Best Tour de France performance: 1st (2007, 2009, 2010)

Strengths: Contador is arguably the best climber in the peloton, with an explosive attack to match, as he was only too willing to demonstrate during the Giro d’Italia, dropping his rivals at will. The 28-year-old’s not easily unsettled and has an unerring ability to focus on the job on hand. In team director Bjarne Riis, a former Tour winner, Contador only adds to his already significant tactical nous.

Weaknesses: Even before the first pedal has been turned, Contador’s pending doping appeal has cast a shadow over this Tour – and last year’s result is yet to be confirmed. The Spaniard is overwhelming favourite but, in truth, the result of the world’s biggest cycling race won’t be known until his Court of Arbitration for Sport hearing in August. Contador will be under intense scrutiny for the next three weeks, both from the media and fans, so how will he handle the pressure? And how much did a gruelling Giro route take out of him?

Andy Schleck

Age: 26
Country: Luxembourg
Team: Leopard-Trek
Tour de France 2010: 2nd
Best Tour de France performance: 2nd (2009, 2010)

Strengths: A superb climber, Schleck also has a well-rounded team at his disposal, including four-time world time trial champion Fabian Cancellara, who will drive Leopard-Trek’s engine during the team time trial, and brother Frank…

Weaknesses:…but Schleck has rarely been able to put Contador in trouble in the mountains, despite often having Frank at his side. In fact, the two haven’t been able to fully utilise their talents as a pair. Indeed, Phillipe Gilbert brushed off their efforts with ease during the Liege-Bastogne-Liege finale in April. What’s more, if Schleck is to challenge Contador, the penultimate stage’s 42.5km time trial, where Contador is by far the stronger rider, will prove vital. Any deficit by then and it could be too late.

Bradley Wiggins

Age: 31
Country: Great Britain
Team: Team Sky
Tour de France 2010: 24th
Best Tour de France performance: 4th (2009)

Strengths: Wiggins arrives at the Tour in excellent form, having won the Critérium du Dauphiné, the biggest road victory of his career, before claiming his first national road race title last weekend. He’s also the strongest tester among the leading contenders and finished second on the Dauphiné’s 42.5km time trial, which used the same course as the Tour’s only individual test. Having rode under the radar to a fourth place finish in 2009, Wiggins struggled at altitude last term, trailing home in 24th – a humbling experience for Team Sky in their maiden Tour. But Wiggins returns a more relaxed and confident rider who looks comfortable in his position as team leader.

Weaknesses: Wiggins’ success in the Dauphiné came as a result of an assured and calculated display in the Alps. The Ghent-born rider isn’t a natural climber – far from it – but he effectively time trialled each ascent, not riding into the red just to keep close tabs on his rivals. A similar performance will be needed across all the high mountain stages of the Tour, where he may be vulnerable to quick-fire attacks. What’s more, the 2011 route is particularly mountianeous, with four summit finishes combined with few time trial kilometres.

Cadel Evans

Age: 34
Country: Australia
Team: BMC Racing
Tour de France 2010: 26th
Best Tour de France performance: 2nd (2007, 2008)

Strengths: Like Wiggins, Evans has enjoyed notable success this term, winning Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour de Romandie before finishing second behind the Brit in the Dauphiné. There he looked comfortable but lacking a little punch, although the Australian has had three weeks to fine-tune his form. Evans’ World Championship win in 2009 changed his dynamics as a rider and the 34-year-old is now a willing to attack rather than ride conservatively in the mountains.

Weaknesses: For so long the bridesmaid but never the bride, Evans has endured his fair share of bad luck. Last year, having been struck down by illness on the way to fifth place finish in the Giro, yellow jersey holder Evans led Contador by one minute, 40 seconds going into the stage nine, when a fractured elbow caused him to lose significant time on his rivals and end his overall hopes.

Samuel Sanchez

Age: 33
Country: Spain
Team: Euskaltel-Euskadi
Tour de France 2010: 4th
Best Tour de France performance: 4th (2010)

Strength: One of the pure climbers, Sanchez will revel in the high mountains that feature prominently across this year’s Tour. He will also receive full support from his Basque team, Euskaltel-Euskadi, as the road rears up.

Weakness: But was last year’s fourth place finish as good as it gets for the Olympic champion? While Sanchez is a punchy climber, he doesn’t hold the time trial ability to consistently contest the top spots. Sanchez will have to earn himself plenty of breathing room in the mountains if he is to upgrade fourth to third. After all, last year’s Bordeaux time trial cost Sanchez dearly. Having enjoyed a place on the virtual podium for ten stages, Sanchez conceded one minute, forty seconds in 52km to Denis Menchov and, with it, a spot in the limelight come Paris 24 hours later.

Part two of RCUK’s top 10 contenders will profile Jurgen Van Den Broeck, Ivan Basso, Robert Gesink, Frank Schleck and Levi Leipheimer.


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