We won’t point out that last year’s Tour de France was a drug farce from before it began, when a group of the men-most-likely were banned from competing before they even slipped on the skin-tights for stage one.

Nor shall we recall that the event ended ignominiously, with winner Floyd Landis accepting the winner’s bouquet before, moments later, handing it back. His unbelievable comeback ride on stage 17 was, it turned out, literally unbelievable.

Instead, we’ll focus on the good news story that will be the Tour de France 2007, a Tour etched in sporting legend as the moment cycling emerged from its drug fug, shook itself clean, and re-took its place at the table of truly great sporting events. (Cough, splutter. Is it wrong to dream?)

Hopeless optimism aside, here’s a quick guide to the riders to watch when le Tour takes to the streets of London for the prologue tomorrow night, Australian time.

The internationals

The major favourite of the Tour is an ethnic Russian Kazakhstan rider Alexandre Vinokourov — a man who conjures up images of Drago in one Rocky sequel too many. He also has Armstrong’s former doctor and coach, the Italian preparetore, Michelle Ferrari, a felicitous name if ever there was one. A veritable alchemist in the imperfect sporting science of hematology performance.

Vinokourov’s Kazakh team is named Astana, which is the capital of Kazakhstan. The actual organisation is a group of five state-owned resource companies running the global commodities boom, with free cash flow to burn on vanity projects of the Prime Minister, who happens to be close friends with Vinokourov. This is a Baron-Cohen bizarro-world where Astana is the equally absurd counterpoint to Borat.

The second favourite is German Andreas Kloden who happens to ride for the Kazakh prestige publicity play. Our prediction: Vinokourov and Kloden to put Astana on the world map right up there with New York, Beijing, London and Paris.

Spaniard Alejandro Valverde, aka the Green Bullet, is the last of the favourites, and he rides for the most recent incarnation of the team the great Miguel Indurain rode for. Valverde will wear the black jersey of Caisse d’Epargne, a French bank, for the dual French-Spanish outfit. One question: why would they kit themselves out in black for the 30 plus degrees celsius days of July in France?

There are numerous outsiders who may threaten, including Aussie Cadel Evans. There is also the Russian Denis Menchov riding for Rabobank, and the Spaniard Carlos Sastre who is the team leader for the CSC team of Australian Stuart O’Grady, who carries the colourful nickname “Stuey”.

Robbie McEwen’s competition for the green jersey are Belgium’s Tom Boonen of Quickstep, Italian Daniele Bennati of Lampre, Spaniard Oscar Freire of Rabobank, and Norwegian Thor Hushovd of Credit Agricole.

The polka dots jersey of the best climber looks to be a race in two between Frenchman Christophe Moreau of AG2R and Danish Alex Rassmussen of Rabobank. Perhaps Jose Gomez Marchante of Saunier Duval might be a threat. Certainly deserves to be with a name like that.

Our boys

The Australian contingent at this year’s tour is the smallest for a few years, an anomaly, inverse to the depth, participation, and number of wins of the current crop. You can blame this on the lack of a national, licensed trade team. Here’s
who will be starting in the prologue on Saturday in London:

Cadel Evans of Predictor Lotto leads the antipodean charge on the general classification (overall). He is a very good chance at reaching the podium, a first for an Australian.

Teammate Robbie McEwen will spearhead another green jersey campaign for the best sprinter. He currently has 11 stage wins, one behind German Erik Zabel. McEwen will undoubtedly have this stat at the front of his mind as he rubs shoulders with Zabel in the sprints. To put this in context, a stage win is a career-maker, the equivalent of a goal at the World Cup. McEwen not only has multiple stage wins he has 3 green jerseys while Zabel has 6, so he is unlikely to match the great German in classification titles. There’s no doubt McEwen’s achievements are under-rated at home.

Michael Rogers of T-Mobile is a three time world champion in the time-trial, yet he has compromised his abilities against the watch to morph into a candidate for the overall. Climbing and time-trialling do have a tenuous negative correlation and Rogers will need both talents in his armoury. He finished 10th last year, in the equip, that is, in the role of worker for his team leader. This year he leads his German team and is a fighting chance of a top 5 finish.

Stuart O’Grady of Danish outfit CSC managed to win this year’s “Queen of the Classics”, the famous one-day race, Paris to Roubaix, which is raced over the cobbled roads of the industrial regions of north east France – the finest single performance of an Australian cyclist this year which registered nary a blip back here. He and O’Grady will be bitter rivals in the sprints, neither giving an inch.

Brett Lancaster will make his debut at the Tour for Milram, a German Italian team, and his role will be to get his nose in the wind in the last kilometre to slipstream his team leaders, including Eric Zabel.

Simon Gerrans rides his third Tour for the French AG2R team. He will be a domestique, which is the gopher role, for his team leaders, and will perform innumerable tasks, none of which are likely to garner him prestige or publicity, but plenty of reasons to complain to his Mum over the phone.

There are another two riders with Australian links. Heinrich Haussler is an Australian yet left Inverell at 14 or 15 to chase his dream to be a professional cyclist. He lived with his grandmother in Cottbus East Germany and forged his own path to a pro contract. He is 23 and will ride his first Tour with Gerolsteiner, the German mineral water company. Unfortunately for national team selectors, his registration is under a German licence. He will lose manfully in the sprints.

Bradley Wiggins is a British rider with an Australian father who was a great track cyclist who competed in Belgium. Wiggins was born in Belgium to an Australian mother, and his father now lives in Tasmania. Wiggins is the second favourite to win the prologue in his home city of London on Saturday night.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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