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2010 Tour de France: Top contenders

7/6/2010

A look at the top contenders in the 2010 Tour de France:

Lance Armstrong (USA), RadioShack, 38

The seven-time Tour winner's form was dubious before recent top-three performances at stage races in Luxembourg and Switzerland. He can count on his usual strong (if aging) ensemble cast, including two other men with past Tour podium finishes, Levi Leipheimer and Andreas Kloeden.

Armstrong's bike-handling should help him navigate a tricky first week, and he showed last year he remains masterful at exploiting small tactical advantages. He's also vaunted for his ability to convert controversy into fuel, but the recent doping allegations and investigations involving him are the most serious of his career and it's hard to imagine they aren't affecting him at some level.

Alberto Contador (ESP), Astana, 27

It would be foolish to bet against the chances of a rider who has won the past four Grand Tours he has entered. Contador would probably have to make a major mistake to lose this one. This year's course -- top-heavy with climbing and light on truly decisive stages -- favors him if he can stay upright and not lose too much time during the first week, when wind and cobblestones could give him fits.

The clear difference between this year's bid and all of Contador's other three-week campaigns is his team. He'll be entering unknown territory in a sense without a Johan Bruyneel-constructed squad, and has the ultimate wild card for a road captain in Alexandre Vinokourov.

Cadel Evans (AUS), BMC Racing Team, 33

When Evans targeted the Giro d'Italia this spring, it was said to be his best shot to win a Grand Tour, but his fifth-place showing wasn't really a disappointment given the young team that accompanied the reigning world champion and the fact he won an epic stage and the overall points jersey. Yes, the Tour field is deeper, and Evans has never tried to peak for two three-week races; he essentially lost the Giro in duels on two of the toughest climbs in Europe. But his mindset has never been stronger and he'll have the invaluable services of George Hincapie at his disposal. Expect the two-time Tour runner-up to be in the mix until the final weekend.

Denis Menchov (RUS), Rabobank, 32

Some would tout young climber Robert Gesink as an equal threat for the overall title, but Menchov has won two Grand Tours on the road (2007 Vuelta d'Espana, 2009 Giro d'Italia) and one by doping disqualification (2005 Vuelta) and proved he has the resiliency needed to cope with the inevitable ups and downs of a three-week race. Menchov also ascended a virtual Tour podium in 2008 when he finished fourth behind Bernhard Kohl, whose result was later scrubbed due to a positive doping test. The Russian, who has raced sparingly this spring, has one of the stronger support crews the Dutch team has fielded in recent years.

Michael Rogers (AUS), HTC-Columbia, 30

Rogers has one of the most balanced skill sets in the peloton. His best Tour finish came in 2006 (ninth) with a T-Mobile team demoralized by Jan Ullrich's race-eve suspension. Promoted to team leader in 2007 under Bob Stapleton's revamped management, Rogers briefly held the virtual overall lead in Stage 7 before crashing out. He skipped the 2008 Tour because of illness and poor form, and was repeatedly battered in crashes last year. Rogers' Tour of California win last month showed he's on track, and the team has demonstrated it can pursue the dual goals of protecting him and working for sprinter Mark Cavendish. Germany's Tony Martin will provide top-notch support.

Andy Schleck (LUX), Saxo Bank, 25

Generally considered to be one of the only -- if not the only -- rider capable of consistently following Contador's explosive attacks in the mountains, 2009 Tour runner-up Schleck has youth and a single-minded, selfless and experienced group of domestiques at his side, including brother Frank. The relative lack of time-trial miles at this event will help him, and last year's Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner shouldn't be troubled by the bumpy riding in the first week. A consensus pick for the podium.

Christian Vande Velde (USA), Garmin-Transitions, 34

Once again, Vande Velde enters this Tour with less than ideal form, having broken his collarbone early in the Giro d'Italia. But that setback was minor compared to his potentially career-threatening crash in the 2009 Giro, and Vande Velde still managed to finish eighth in the Tour despite functioning primarily as a super-domestique.

If he survives the first week with body and confidence intact, he can focus on peaking for the Pyrenees and using the final time trial to vault onto the podium he just missed in 2008. Garmin will multitask to help deliver Tyler Farrar a sprint victory, and Vande Velde will be leaning on Canada's Ryder Hesjedal in the mountains.

Bradley Wiggins (GBR), Team Sky, 30

Wiggins rode out from under the radar to finish fourth at the Tour for Garmin last year. In 2010, he'll carry the weight of expectations from his new team and his hero-hungry nation and could find the going very different -- especially since there's no team time trial and only one individual race against the clock for him to play to his greatest strength. He showed he could hold his own in the lead group in the mountains and will have a strong support crew, but there's always a learning curve for a first-time Tour organization.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.