- Bonnie D. Ford, Enterprise and Olympic Sports
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Here is a look at the top contenders for the 2009 Tour de France with quick takes from two retired American cyclists, Versus analyst Frankie Andreu and Saxo Bank technical director Bobby Julich, who each raced in the Tour de France nine times.
Alberto Contador (Spain), 26, Astana
This stellar talent has only raced the Tour once over the past three years, forced off the start line in 2006 and 2008 when his team was disinvited because of circumstances beyond his control. But Contador took full advantage in 2007 as Discovery Channel team leader, hanging on in the final week after presumptive victor Michael Rasmussen was fired by his team for evading drug testing.
Contador went on to capture cycling's other two Grand Tours in Italy and Spain within a 14-month span, establishing himself as the best stage racer in the world, and has clearly focused on improving his time-trial skills. The biggest question for the mild-mannered Spaniard this year is whether his team, which includes three other men who have stood on Tour podiums, will be unified behind him, or whether -- despite the official line -- he'll have to fend off an internal challenge from a certain seven-time Tour winner.
Contador has raced sparingly this season and put all his chips on the line for the Tour. He also could be trying to leverage his next contract if Astana dissolves because of financial instability; he's already had informal contact with teams including Caisse d'Epargne and Garmin.
Frankie Andreu's take: "Absolutely the favorite."
Bobby Julich's take: "He's a killer. Watching him this year, he seems to have no weaknesses. The only thing he has to worry about is that there are so many chiefs on this team."
Denis Menchov (Russia), 31, Rabobank
One of the toughest-minded riders in the peloton, Menchov will be trying to pull off what no man has done since Marco Pantani in 1998: the Giro d'Italia-Tour de France double. The wear and tear isn't easy to survive. If the racing is as conservative as it was last year (and we're betting against that), all Menchov would have to do to land on his first Tour podium is stay on the leaders' wheels -- something he's superb at -- and perform well in the last time trial and the climb up Mont Ventoux. He may also find himself continuing to fend off questions about an ongoing doping investigation in Austria that has touched his team.
Menchov is a two-time winner of the Tour of Spain, once outright (2007) and once via the doping disqualification of Roberto Heras (2005). His narrow, dramatic win in Italy was built on strong rides in two mountain stages and a win in the difficult long time trial midway through the race. Menchov started the Rome time trial on the final day with a 20-second lead, then suffered every rider's Armageddon scenario, crashing on rain-slicked cobblestones in the final kilometer. He was saved by a quick-witted mechanic who swapped out his bike in a move worthy of a NASCAR pit crew and wound up winning the race by 41 seconds.
Andreu: "If he has the same kind of form he had in the Giro, he'll be a factor."
Julich: "You can get away without having an above-average team in the Giro. You can't in the Tour."
Carlos Sastre (Spain), 34, Cervelo Test Team
Don't underestimate the late kick of this defending champion, who is almost always in the mix. Sastre took control of last year's Tour with one acceleration away from the pack on Alpe d'Huez. Then, amid open questioning of his psychological strength and time-trial ability, Sastre made his lead stick by limiting his losses on the second-to-last day.
Sastre knew his star was setting at Saxo Bank, where younger standouts like brothers Andy and Frank Schleck were set to supplant him, and surprised some by jumping to the first-year team sponsored by a well-established bike manufacturer. He laid low early in the season before emerging to log two impressive mountain-stage wins at the Giro, earning him a fourth-place finish. Cervelo will try to help previous green jersey winner Thor Hushovd excel in the sprints, but the roster is constructed to support Sastre. The non-selection of Aussie talent Simon Gerrans, a stage winner at the Giro and Tour, reflects Sastre's desire to stack the team with domestiques who have no ambitions of their own.
Andreu: "I think he'll be good. Top 5."
Julich: "Having [Mont] Ventoux on the last Saturday is to his advantage."
Lance Armstrong (United States), 37, Astana
If this megacelebrity, cancer crusader and boss emeritus of the peloton weren't in the race, Contador might have been appointed winner by acclamation. Nominally starting in a support role, Armstrong is widely expected to try to assert himself and show he deserves to be Astana's most protected rider. At the very least, he is one heckuva Plan B if Contador flags.
Do we really know where Armstrong's form is at this point? It was impossible to judge early in the season, as he was coming back from three years away from the sport and invested his energy into helping Levi Leipheimer win the season's first major race in California. The Texan had a so-so day at Milan-San Remo, then broke his collarbone for the first time in his career in a minor stage race in Spain in late March. His expectations for the Giro -- once a major target -- had to be scaled back. He appeared to get stronger as that race went on, but he still hasn't been tested in a Tour-level mano-a-mano.
Will his first race in France since his comeback nine months ago play out without controversy of some kind, on or off the bike? Unlikely, but then again, he has vast experience in dealing with it.
Andreu: "Uncharted territory. He's never done a three-week race before the Tour."
Julich: "Every time I've doubted Lance in the past, he's proved me wrong. Obviously, he made some amazing progress in the Giro."
Cadel Evans (Australia), 32, Silence-Lotto
Will this able rider muster the aggression needed to convert his back-to-back runner-up finishes into a win? Evans' well-documented stumbles with the media last year were widely viewed as a negative response to pressure, but give credit where credit is due -- he has missed the top step of the podium by a combined 81 seconds the last two years, pretty good for a guy who was supposedly cracking.
Evans had two strong time-trial performances at the recent Dauphine Libere tuneup race but faltered in the mountain stages, in part because of the apparent ad hoc partnership between Contador and ostensible rival Alejandro Valverde, who is not starting the Tour because of doping allegations.
If divisiveness fells Astana, fatigue hampers Menchov, Sastre fails to put two good days together, Christian Vande Velde isn't quite recovered from his injury and neither of the Schleck brothers is up to the task, Evans might sneak through on sheer consistency. But he'll probably have to take a risk somewhere to make a difference, even though it may not be in his nature.
Andreu: "Who knows. He doesn't take things into his own hands."
Julich: "Again, it boils down to team. It's amazing that he's been able to do what he's done with next to no help when it really matters."
Andy Schleck (Luxembourg), 24, Saxo Bank
Frank Schleck (Luxembourg), 29, Saxo Bank
Most observers think the younger of the two Schleck brothers is better positioned to vie for a Tour win this year, even though he has a thinner résumé at this point. Neither raced the Giro this year; Andy concentrated on the classics and came away with a win in the prestigious Liege-Bastogne-Liege event, along with succeeding his brother as road champion of his tiny bike-mad nation. At last year's Tour, Andy had a morale-crushing bonk on the first serious climbing stage in the Pyrenees but rallied the rest of the way to take Best Young Rider honors in a competitive field.
Frank was sidelined by a training crash in March and has struggled with a knee problem, but he came back to win the Tour of Luxembourg and survived an agony-of-defeat-caliber crash in the Tour of Switzerland. In the offseason, he also survived an inquiry over past payments to Operacion Puerto's central figure, Dr. Eufemiano Fuentes; authorities followed the money but could not establish a direct connection to doping. Frank's disastrous time trial on the penultimate day of the 2008 Tour, which dropped him from second to fifth overall, raises some doubts about his mettle under pressure.
Saxo Bank's situation is somewhat complicated by the fact that time-trial specialist Fabian Cancellara likely will be in the hunt for the yellow jersey early in the race. This much is certain: There will be no such thing as sibling rivalry between the Schlecks once the race gets going. Each would toil tirelessly for whoever winds up as the chosen one.
Andreu: "Andy Schleck is an underdog favorite with a great chance to make the podium. He's got great climbing ability, and his time trialing is improving. The experience from last year should really help him."
Julich: "Andy is a cold-blooded killer, a warrior, a hunter with no fear and the brashness of youth that helps you 10 times over in this sport."
Christian Vande Velde (United States), 33, Garmin-Slipstream
What Vande Velde did last year, finishing fifth in the Tour and moving up to fourth after the doping disqualification of Bernhard Kohl (originally in third place) was either a career trip or a sign that he can compete for the podium after a decade spent largely as a support rider.
The question is whether he can build on that result so soon after a jarring crash early in the Giro left him with fractures in five vertebrae, his pelvis and one rib. Vande Velde logged some quality miles in his legs at the Tour of Switzerland, and given his aversion to hype, it may be better for him to come in under the radar and try to peak for the all-important last week. But he is a far longer shot than he would have been had his spring not been so rudely interrupted.
Andreu: "He'll have his hands full trying to repeat in the top 5."
Julich: "He was definitely stronger than I thought he would be in Switzerland. I see the desire of a leader, even though he may not be where he wants to be yet [physically], and that's half the battle."
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A look at the top contenders for the 2009 Tour de France with quick takes from two retired American cyclists, Frankie Andreu and Bobby Julich.