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95th Tour de France kicks off with 180 riders

Latest update : 2008-07-05

The first stage with 180 riders took off in Brittany on Saturday in the 95th Tour de France. An unusual number of contenders and outsiders are racing for 2008's yellow jersey, in the absence of last year's winner Alberto Contador.

Penpix of yellow jersey contenders and outsiders for the Tour de France, which starts here on Saturday:

Cadel Evans (AUS)
Evans has had a steady rise up the Tour's general classification, and missed out on the big prize to Alberto Contador of Spain last year by just 23secs. Despite that close call, the talented Australian will know it doesn't necessarily get any easier. This season the former mountain bike champion from the remote Northern Territory has had promising results and his bid is buoyed by the fact his Silence team is, with the exception of sprinter Robbie McEwen, committed to making him Australia's first Tour champion. Evans is not a natural attacker in the mountains, so will be hoping his team, and especially Ukrainian Yaroslav Popovych, stay with him for as long as possible during the tactical minefields that are the Pyrenees and Alps. Ultimately, the 31-year-old may have to be forced to make the difference by using his superb time trialling skills in the penultimate stage race against the clock over 53km.

Alejandro Valverde (ESP)
It seems Valverde has been tipped as a yellow jersey champion since he first graced the professional peloton. But after two abandons due to crashes on his first two participations then a promising sixth place finish last year, the 28-year-old from Murcia finally appears ready to launch a more authentic yellow jersey charge. A proficient climber who over the past few years has steadily improved in the often decisive longer time trials, Valverde has a real chance of becoming the second successive Spanish winner of the race following Alberto Contador, who is absent. Surrounded by a strong team, including 2006 winner Oscar Pereiro, which has plenty of Tour experience Valverde goes into the race with perhaps as pschological edge as the reigning champion of the Dauphine Libere race, where he dominated Evans - and showed the Aussie he won't bend easily.

Carlos Sastre (ESP)
It remains to be seen just how much CSC's official yellow jersey contender  has improved his time trialling skills, which have been one of his few handicaps in the past. But there's no doubting Sastre's abilities in the mountains. With five top ten places since 2002, and with a third and fourth places respectively in 2006 and 2007, Sastre cannot be discounted, especially in the absence of some of the bigger names who kept him off the podium in the past. However where Valverde and Evans recently displayed their pre-Tour form with first and second place respectively in the Dauphine Libere stage race, Sastre finished way down in 20th after failing to fire up in the race's four mountains stages. He will pick up form as the race goes on, but will have to be on fire to dislodge the two big favourites.

Denis Menchov (RUS)
The two-time Tour of Spain winner is generally considered more a pretender than a contender, but he could be motivated to get his yellow jersey bid back on track after the turmoil of last year's Tour. Once his teammate Michael Rasmussen took the race lead, Menchov was reduced to a role, albeit important, of supporting the skinny, climbing Dane. Rabobank's bid then fell apart when Rasmussen was thrown off the race, and eventually sacked, once it was revealed he had skipped several pre-competition doping controls. A question mark seems to forever hover over Menchov's yellow jersey pretensions, however the reigning Tour of Spain champion is a respected time trialler, and is likely to be one of the main protagonists in the mountains.

Andy Schleck (LUX)
The younger of Luxembourg's famous Schleck brothers, Andy is considered a future winner of the Tour thanks to his youth, climbing prowess and cock-sure attitude while racing in the company of more established stage race riders, including his older brother Frank. Having taken his stock sky high with a runner-up place behind Danilo di Luca in the 2007 Giro d'Italia, Schleck will race his first Tour - an altogether more challenging affair than the Giro - in the company of Frank, who in recent years has been more used to providing assitance in the mountains to Spanish team leader Carlos Sastre. For this race CSC may leave their options open, depending on just how Sastre are faring once the race hits the critical stages, although both riders may find themselves playing catchup to Evans and Valverde in the time trials.

Damiano Cunego (ITA)
A former winner of the Giro d'Italia, the "little prince" who rides for Lampre is a huge talent in stage racing, especially in the mountains. However most will agree that the demands of the Tour, where the pace is faster and more frenetic than in the Giro, are simply too much for the blond-haired Italian. Cunego can climb with the best of them, and this year skipped the Giro to focus netirely on the Tour, but his time trialling could prove a handicap. Nevertheless, on his one and only participation two years ago Cunego won the white jersey for the top placed rider under the age of 25.

Date created : 2008-07-05