The 2011 edition of the Tour de France gets under on July 2nd and, before it even begins, we can already discount at least 190 of the 198 starters.
Realistically, there are probably only two or three who would be worth the risk of betting on their chances.
But, for the sake of a bit of fun, let’s have a look at all of the possible contenders and their chances of wearing the coveted maillot jaune on the Champs Elysees when the caravan rolls into town on July 24th.
Unless something sensational happens, the Tour will almost certainly be a race between reigning and three-time Tour champion, Saxo Bank’s Alberto Contador, and runner-up and winner of the young rider classification for the last two Tours, Leopard Trek’s Andy Schleck.
The two have been separated by less than five minutes over the 7000km of the last two Tours. Last year, the gap was only 39 seconds and the way that Contador established that lead is still the subject of debate.
Schleck was attacking on the climb of the Port de Bales and had established a break when his chain jammed, stopping him dead. Contador took the opportunity to launch a counterattack and managed to gain 39 seconds on Schleck—coincidentally the exact victory margin.
It is tradition that riders don’t attack their competitors when they have had a mechanical failure. Whether Contador was aware of the issue or not is unknown, but he has shown himself to be ruthless and willing to do whatever it takes to win.
That is why he goes into this race as the favorite, but it will be interesting to see whether the pressure of the outstanding appeal by WADA will affect him. He has already received a hostile reception from French fans.
Schleck, on the other hand, has improved in each of his last three tours and, with a fit brother Frank by his side, will be best placed to take the race to Contador.
It would have been interesting to see how differently the 2010 Tour would have turned out had Frank not shattered his collar bone on stage three. When working together they are a formidable team.
Barring incident, injury or illness, there are few of the other contenders who seem likely to trouble Contador or Schleck.
BMC’s Cadel Evans has been in the mix for the past half-dozen Tours, but struggled after falls in 2010 and being stuck in a dud team in 2009. This year, he is in peak form and has better team support, but has never shown the killer instinct or ability to break the field as Contador or Armstrong have done in the recent past. Still, with luck and good health, he will influence the outcome.
Ivan Basso, from team Liquigas, has made winning the Tour his sole focus this year. He had a nasty crash during training in May and struggled at the Criterium du Dauphine, but is hopeful of finding form and can’t be discounted.
Other riders who are likely to feature prominently include Sammy Sanchez (Euskaltel-Euskadi), Ryder Hesjedal (Garmin-Cervelo), Jurgen van den Broek (Omega Pharma-Lotto), Bradley Wiggins (Sky Procycling), Robert Gesnik (Rabobank) and Andreas Kloden (Radioshack).
It will take something special for the yellow jersey not to be on the back of either Schleck or Contador when the riders finally make their way back to Paris later this month. The beauty of the Tour de France is that the extraordinary can and does happen.
It is arguably the toughest test of athletic ability on the planet and has a habit of treating favorites with contempt. Some rise to the challenge, others falter, but whoever stands on the top step of the podium in Paris will have earned it.
We’ll find out in 22 days who that will be—my money is on Andy Schleck.