From the NYT; full story HERE.
LIÈGE, Belgium — The Tour de France has every reason to be lackluster this year. Alberto Contador, professional cycling’s best rider, is serving a doping ban. Andy Schleck, a perennial contender, is sidelined with an injury. And the Olympic road race in late July, just days after the Tour’s end, has some competitors thinking about saving themselves for the one-day event.
But the 99th edition of cycling’s premier race may prove to be one of the most compelling in recent years, thanks to Bradley Wiggins of Britain and the defending champion, Cadel Evans of Australia.
As the Tour starts its nearly 2,173-mile journey Saturday, the yellow jersey spotlight is fixed firmly on Wiggins and Evans.
Wiggins, 32, is the favorite to stand atop the podium in Paris three weeks from now. With a lanky frame and modish sideburns that hark back to 1960s-era Britain, he looks as if he would be more at home in an Antonioni film than in a bike race.
The extra facial hair has not increased Wiggins’s drag coefficient this season. The Team Sky captain, Wiggins has had a torrid start to 2012, winning three of the five stage races he has entered, including a victory over a field that included Evans in the Critérium du Dauphiné in June.
“Bradley is in form and on the up,” the Team Sky sport director Sean Yates said. “He’s done so much in the last six months, and he’s the favorite for the Tour now.”
Though Wiggins has often made the shortlist of contenders in recent years, his Tour performances have proved inconsistent. A former Olympic champion track cyclist, he finished fourth in the 2009 Tour, his best result, before struggling to 24th place in 2010.
Last year, he adjusted his pre-Tour training regime with the help of Tim Kerrison, a former coach for the Australian national swimming team. But he failed to see the fruits of his labor in the Tour, breaking his collarbone during Stage 7 and abandoning the race.
Fully recovered, Wiggins has benefited from his increased fitness this season.
“With that improvement, and with race results, comes confidence, and there’s a snowball effect,” Yates said.
Wiggins’s chief challenger will be Evans, who last year became the first Australian to win the Tour.
Evans, the 35-year-old Team BMC Racing leader, has not enjoyed as much success leading to July as he did last year. A sinus infection forced his withdrawal from Amstel Gold, a one-day race in the Netherlands in April, and he returned to form only recently, finishing third at the Dauphiné.
For the notably private Evans, who has sought inner peace in past Tours by locking himself in hotel bathrooms with noise-canceling headphones, spending the spring under the radar has helped him prepare mentally for the title defense.
“In some ways, I suppose not having the best race results keeps people’s attention away from me and helps make my life a little easier,” he said in a teleconference last week.
The two riders are similarly matched. Their teams, among the highest-salaried in the Tour this year, have world-class support riders. And both Wiggins and Evans are excellent all-around riders, as comfortable in the mountains as in individual time trials, stages in which riders race one by one against the clock.
Last year, Evans won the race during the individual time trial in Grenoble, snatching yellow from the leader, Andy Schleck, with an inspired ride.
Time trials will play a bigger role in this Tour than in the recent past. In 2009 and 2010, there were two solo time trials; last year, just one. This year the course, which winds clockwise around France, features three individual time trials.
The defending champion, Cadel Evans, riding alongside a team car during a pre-Tour training session.
RIDERS TO WATCH
• Bradley Wiggins
Country: Great Britain
Last year’s finish: Withdrew after breaking collarbone during Stage 7
Wiggins, long Britain’s best yellow jersey hope, arrives at the Tour in the best form of his career. A former track cycling star — Wiggins was a gold medalist at the 2008 Olympic Games — he won three major stage races this spring, joining the cycling legends Eddy Merckx and Jacques Anquetil as the only riders in cycling history to win both the Paris-Nice race and the Critérium du Dauphiné, which Wiggins won last month. He’ll have support from his loaded Team Sky squad, which helped him best his rival Cadel Evans in the Dauphiné. Though he rode to a fourth-place finish in 2009, Wiggins has seen many of his Tours end ingloriously. In 2007, his Cofidis team quit the race en masse after a positive drug test by one of its riders, Cristian Moreni. Last year, Wiggins broke his collarbone during Stage 7 and was forced to abandon the race.
• Cadel Evans
Team: BMC Racing
Last year’s finish: Winner
Evans, the defending champion, has had a quieter lead-up to this year’s Tour than in seasons’ past. Beset by a sinus infection in April, he missed many of the month’s spring classics — a series of imposing one-day races held in Belgium and Holland — and had an undistinguished finish at the Tour de Romandie, which he won in 2011. Though he failed to win the Critérium du Dauphiné, Evans showed the pro circuit his form during a breakaway win in the race’s first stage. Like Wiggins, Evans is a strong climber as well as a savvy time-trialer, which will be of utmost importance on a course that features more than 100 kilometers of racing against the clock.
• Fränk Schleck
Last year’s finish: Third
Schleck won’t have his teammate and younger brother Andy, out with a fractured pelvis, in his quest for a repeat podium finish. Schleck, who led the 2008 Tour for three stages, has had an uneven season: he pulled out of May’s Giro d’Italia with a shoulder injury, then finished second in June’s Tour de Suisse. But he seems to be peaking at the right time and will benefit mentally from the absence of the team director Johan Bruyneel, who, along with Lance Armstrong, has been charged with running a doping conspiracy by the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Bruyneel and the Schleck brothers have reportedly had a tense relationship since the beginning of this season; in May, Bruyneel publicly questioned Fränk Schleck’s commitment to racing after the Giro abandon.