AFTER A THREE-YEAR hiatus, Lance Armstrong will ride again this year in the Alps and the Pyrenees. While he's again a favorite going into the Tourwould you bet against him?he's no longer the favorite. Several names (some familiar, some new) will be trading places at the top of the standings as the 2,175-mile Tour unfolds July 426.
Truth is, after sitting out much of the spring with a broken collarbone, Armstrong, now 37, would do well just to be the top guy on his squad. His young Astana teammate Alberto Contador, the 2007 Tour champion, is most people's pick for yellow. And Astana can also count on Levi Leipheimerwho finished third in the '07 Tour and sixth in this May's Giro d'Italiaand Haimar Zubeldia, who's finished in the top five at the Tour twice. All have indicated that they'll work in support of whichever rider proves strongest, so there could be some serious intrasquad battles in the race's early stages.
Sponsorship difficulties in May pointed to a possible name change for Astana before the Tour, but regardless of what the team is called, it's loaded. Below are our picks for the main players to watch. And Armstrong? We'll handicap him in second, right behind Contador. He's too good at proving the doubters wrong.
The Man to Beat: Alberto Contador
26, Spain (Astana)
Hard feelings and petty politics between Tour organizers, the UCI (cycling's governing body), and Astana kept the team out of last year's Tour. That meant Contador was unable to defend his 2007 victory. Instead he entered and won both the Giro d'Italia and the Vuelta a España, making him only the fifth rider in history to have won all three grand tours. At just 26, he still has his best years ahead of him.
The Upstart: Andy Schleck
24, Luxembourg (Saxo Bank)
Andy is the younger brother of top-ten finisher and teammate Fränk Schleck. He finished second during a breakout performance at the 2007 Giro, at 21, and claimed the jersey for best young rider (under 25) en route to 12th place at last year's Tour. In April, he won the prestigious Liège-Bastogne-Liège one-day classic. This year, he'll lead the powerful squad that put Carlos Sastre in yellow last year.
The Defending Champ: Carlos Sastre
34, Spain (Cervelo Test Team)
Though he's the incumbent, Sastre will encounter a much deeper field this year. Still, he's a proven grand-tour hard manhe was the only rider to finish all three of them in 2007, and took fourth in the '09 Girowho excels in the climbs and, as he showed during last year's win, cannot be overlooked in the time trials. Now leading the new, high-powered Cervélo Test Team, he'll be able to count on plenty of support as he looks to defend.
The Dark Horse: Levi Leipheimer
35, USA (Astana)
This American veteran finished third in 2007 while riding in support of Contador. He's gotten off to his best start ever in 2009, with overall wins at three stage races in a rowthe Tour of California, Spain's Castilla y León, and New Mexico's Tour of the Gila. With all eyes on Armstrong and Contador, Leipheimer will have chances to slip away that few riders of his caliber can enjoy.
Man on a Mission: Cadel Evans
32, Australia (Silence-Lotto)
Evans finished second in the 2007 Tour, between Contador and third-placed Leipheimer. With those two out of the race last year, he started as the overall favorite and wore yellow for several stages. But a strong showing in the mountains by Sastre and an uncharacteristically average performance from Evans in the final time trial saw him finish as runner-up again. His team isn't the strongest, but look for him to be in the mix.