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Tour de France: Top 10 contenders (part two)

Levi Leipheimer (right) hopes to match his third place finish from 2007

The 2011 Tour de France is off and running and, with that, we complete our look at the top 10 contenders looking for a spot in the podium after more than 3,430km of racing.

Alberto Contador, Andy Schleck, Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans and Samuel Sanchez featured in part one – who else should you look out for over the course of the race?

Jurgen Van Den Broeck

Age: 28
Nationality: Belgium
Team: Omega Pharma-Lotto
Tour de France 2010: 5th
Best Tour de France performance: 5th (2010)

Strengths: Judgen Van Den Broeck finished fifth last year in what was only the Belgian’s second Tour de France appearance. The Omega Pharma-Lotto rider is 28, mind, and should now have the garnered the experience to make a bid for a podium place. He arrived at the Tour in good nick having finished fourth overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné, winning a stage in the process.

Weaknesses: Van Den Broeck carries the general classification weight of a nation on his shoulders – and Belgium’s cycling mad population haven’t enjoyed a Tour podium finish since Lucien Van Impe’s second place in 1981. That said, team-mate Philippe Gilbert’s stage one win has taken considerable weight off Van Den Broeck’s shoulders. The former US Postal man is one of the Tour’s pure climbers and, despite being world time trial champion as a junior, will need to earn some breathing space in the mountains before Grenoble’s 42.5km test.

Ivan Basso

Age: 33
Nationality: Italy
Team: Liquigas-Cannondale
Tour de France 2010: 32nd
Best Tour de France performance: 2nd (2005)

Strength: The Italian has considerable pedigree at the Tour, finishing third in 2004 before upgrading to the second step of the podium behind Lance Armstrong in 2005. Basso’s also won the Giro d’Italia twice, in 2006 and 2010, and, expecting Contador to be banned, decided not to defend last year’s title in order to prepare for the Tour.

Weakness: But that preparation was severely disrupted by a crash while training on Mount Etna in May. That left Basso with 15 stitches in his face. A disastrous Critérium du Dauphiné followed, finishing 26th and nearly 25 minutes behind Bradley Wiggins. Basso’s since completed a high-altitude training camp in the Dolomites in a bid to find form before the Tour hits the mountains in week two.

Robert Gesink

Age: 25
Nationality: Netherlands
Team: Rabobank
Tour de France 2010: 6th
Best Tour de France performance: 6th (2010)

Strengths: One of the new kids on the block, 25-year-old Robert Gesink starts the 2011 Tour with an important three weeks – career-defining, almost – ahead of him. The Dutchman, finishing his first Grande Boucle, rode to an impressive sixth last time out but an improved finish, a shot at the podium and the white jersey for best young rider are the minimum return expected this year. He’ll excel in the mountains.

Weaknesses: Gesink fell from first to fifth after the final time trial of last year’s Tour du Suisse – surrending the title to Frank Schleck – and was only 109th fastest on the 2010 Tour’s 52km Bordeaux test, nearly three minutes behind Contador. Those results served as a wake-up call for the Rabobank rider, who set about improving his time trialling and duly started the 2011 season by winning the 18.5km time trial at the Tour of Oman before picking up top 10 finishes over 9.3km at Tirreno-Adriatico and 24km at the Tour of the Basque Country. Now Gesink has to put that new facet of his racing to test on the biggest stage of all.

Ryder Hesjedal

Age: 30
Nationality: Canada
Team: Garmin-Cervelo
Tour de France 2010: 7th
Best Tour de France performance: 7th (2010)

Strength: Jonathan Vaughters’ Garmin team has a habit of delivering an unfancied outsider to a top 10 position, with Christian Van der Velde and Bradley Wiggins occupying fourth in 2008 and 2009 before Ryder Hesjedal finished seventh last year, impressing both on stage three’s cobbles and the summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet. The 30-year-old all-rounder returns a year wiser and with a super-strong team around him.

Weakness: Vaughters had a wealth of talent at his disposal when picking his nine-man line-up for this year’s Tour – with world champion Thor Hushovd, five-time Grand Tour stage winner Tyler Farrar, Paris-Roubaix winner Johan Vansummeren and time trial supremo David Millar all pulling on the argyle. Is Hesjedal Garmin’s priority? Unlikely. In fact, Vaughters has been talking up 33-year-old Tour debutant Tom Danielson. But Hesjedal rode under the radar in 2010 and is capable of doing the same again this year.

Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer

Age: 39 / 37
Nationality: USA / USA
Team: Radioshack
Tour de France 2010: 10th / 13th
Best Tour de France performance: 10th (2010) / 3rd (2007)

Strengths: Radioshack, a shoo-in for the team prize, start the Tour without a designated team leader, instead with two riders targetting general classification success – Chris Horner and Levi Leipheimer, third in 2007. The 39-year-old Horner achieved the most high-profile win of his career with victory in May’s Tour of California, in the process burning Andy Schleck off his wheel on the climb of Sierra Road, while two-time Tour stage winner Leipheimer claimed the Tour du Suisse with a lightning fast performance in the time trial finale. While Horner is the stronger climber, Leipheimer can hold his own in the hills before showing his worth as a tester.

Weaknesses: Both Germany’s Andreas Kloden and Slovenia’s Jani Brajkovic have top 10 ambitions of their own but, with the team not riding in support of one designated rider, will it be a case of too many cooks in the kitchen?


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