Tour de France 2007: Top Contenders

This year's Tour de France has yet again been marred by scandal. The race's first place rider, Denmark's Michael Rasmussen, was just ousted by his team for lying about his whereabouts during training. This comes on the heels of news that the pre-race favorite, Kazakhstan's Alexander Vinokourov, tested positive for doping, pushing him and his team out of the running.

Here's a look at the current and former top contenders:

Alberto Contador
Bryn Lennon, Getty Images

Alberto Contador

Team: Discovery Channel

Country: Spain

Alberto Contador, 24, rides for the Discovery Channel Team; he is known as a gifted all-around competitor whose specialty is climbing. In his cycling career, Contador has shown remarkable resilience. He suffered brain hemorrhaging after crashing during the Vuelta a Asturias competition in 2004. Contador nearly died in the accident, but by the next year was yet again a force on the cycling scene. Just before last year's Tour de France, Contador's team, Liberty Seguros, became ensnared in a doping scandal. Though he was one of nine riders barred from competing in the 2006 Tour, a Spanish court later cleared Contador formally of any link to doping. In this year's race, Contador won stage 14, a grueling mountain stage in the Pyrenees.

Cadel Evans
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

Cadel Evans

Team: Predictor-Lotto

Country: Australia

Thirty-year-old Cadel Evans could be the first Australian to ever place in the Tour de France top three. His bid for the yellow jersey was given a boost when one of his teammates was forced out of the race for failing to finish a stage in the allotted time, clearing the way for Evans' team to assist his bid. Overall, Evans shows strong performances in time trials, coming in second in the stage 13 time trials behind Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov. Now that Vinokourov has been thrown out of the competition for a doping violation, Evans moves up to first place in the trial. A strong climber, Evans rides for the Belgian Predictor-Lotto team.

Pre-Race Top Contenders:

Michael Rasmussen
Franck Fife, AFP/Getty Images

Michael Rasmussen

Team: Rabobank

Country: Denmark

Rasmussen's team has removed him from the race, saying he lied about his whereabouts during training in June.

Champion climber Michael Rasmussen was the Tour leader until his team, Denmark-based Rabobank, kicked him off for violating team rules. Rasmussen has been crowned King of the Mountains twice, in 2005 and 2006, but had yet to make it to the Tour podium. This year, with his strong overall performance it looked like he just might make it on his fourth try. After winning the tough, mountain stage 8, the 33-year-old Dane was closer than ever to an overall Tour win in Paris.

But first, Rasmussen needed to battle his demons: a less-than-stellar time trialing record and the makings of a possible doping scandal. Before Rabobank's expulsion, the Danish Cycling Union dropped Rasmussen from its national team after he failed to inform authorities of his whereabouts during training so that they could conduct random anti-doping testing. DCU's disciplinary measure meant that Rasmussen would not be able to compete at the Olympic Games or at International Cycling Union Championships. DCU officials also questioned Rasmussen's eligibility to compete in the Tour. The Dane had shrugged off the allegations, calling his failure to respond to queries an administrative error. He also showed no intentions of willingly dropping out, braving public scrutiny and jeering crowds as he continued his ride.

Alexander Vinokourov
Bryn Lennon, Getty Images

Alexander Vinokourov

Team: Astana

Country: Kazakhstan

Astana has withdrawn from the Tour after Vinokourov tested positive for doping.

After a doping scandal prevented his former team, Liberty Seguros, from competing last year, Alexander Vinokourov, the leader of the Switzerland-based team, Astana, came back with a vengeance. The Kazakhstan native was one of the favorites to win this year's Tour de France after a breakthrough performance that won him first place in the 2006 Vuelta a Espana. "Vino" was poised to be a top contender in last year's Tour, but when five of his nine teammates were implicated in a doping scandal, his team found themselves without enough riders to compete. With renewed determination, the 33-year-old set his sights on winning the grand prize this year — and he had a strong team behind him, including another front-runner, Andreas Klöden of Germany.

Earning a reputation for being a fearless, aggressive competitor, Vinokourov had proven that he could pull his weight in the Tour. He placed third behind Lance Armstrong and Jan Ullrich of Germany in 2003 and fifth in 2005.

But the former 2007 favorite has not emerged from the scandal-ridden sport unscathed. Vinokourov has faced doping suspicions after being linked to Michele Ferrari, an Italian doctor who won an appeal after being found guilty of sporting fraud and malpractice in 2004. Vinokourov has maintained he has a clean record, admitting that he consulted Ferrari for training assistance but not for medical advice. Yet again, a doping scandal will keep him from the Tour podium.

Andreas Kloden
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

Andreas Klöden

Team: Astana

Country: Germany

Astana has withdrawn from the Tour after team leader Vinokourov tested positive for doping.

Germany's Andreas Klöden is a solid climber, helping him during the mountain stretches and against Astana teammate Vinokourov. In the 2004 Tour, he outrode his team leader, fellow German Jan Ullrich, in the mountains and earned a second-place finish. A good time-trialist, Klöden's Tour performance last year was similarly strong, placing third place behind Floyd Landis and Oscar Pereiro. In this year's lineup, he's the only top 10 competitor to have landed on the Tour podium twice. Klöden finished second in the Tour prologue – and 17 seconds ahead of the seventh place Vinokourov.

The Astana team has denied the existence of tension between the two, but Vinokourov and Klöden reportedly have a history of intra-team friction. Both rode for the T-Mobile team in the 2005 Tour de France. During the competition, Klöden and Ullrich clashed with Vinokourov. Tour watchers had speculated that Klöden could end up aiming for the yellow jersey himself rather than helping his teammate to victory.

Carlos Sastre
Franck Fife, AFP/Getty Images

Carlos Sastre

Team: CSC

Country: Spain

As of the end of stage 16, Sastre is ranked 5th in overall time standings.

In the last six Tour de France races, Carlos Sastre of Spain has placed in the top 25. Last year he achieved his highest ranking yet – finishing fourth. Sastre, an excellent climber, outpaced first-place finisher Floyd Landis in 2006 by almost two minutes in the mountain stages of the race. But the 32-year-old's weak performance in the long, flat time trials enabled Landis to overtake him overall.

Sastre became the captain of the Denmark-based Team CSC last year, after Ivan Basso was linked to the Operation Puerto, the Spanish doping investigation. Leading the team again this year, Sastre is seen by many as a top contender. In recent years, he has trained hard to improve his time-trialing and to increase his chances of placing in the Tour's top three. However, some Tour watchers doubt whether he has the all-around competitiveness to win the grand prize.

Oscar Pereiro
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

Oscar Pereiro

Team: Caisse d'Epargne

Country: Spain

As of the end of stage 16, Pereiro is ranked 12th in overall time standings.

Caisse d'Epargne's Oscar Pereiro stands to inherit the 2006 yellow jersey if Floyd Landis is found guilty of doping, and though he has spent the past year unsure of his claim to the title, Spanish cycling aficionados have already crowned him Tour champion.

Since then, the 29-year-old Spaniard has had an overwhelming year. His second-place finish catapulted him into star status after winning cyclist Landis tested positive for doping. Pereiro was flooded with requests for interviews and talk show appearances. He says his 2007 training season has not been as good as it could have been in part because of the publicity and ambiguity regarding his rank in last year's Tour. Pereiro was also a target of the French Anti-Doping Agency for a delay in providing medical justification for his use of an asthma drug. He eventually provided appropriate documentation.

Still, fans will be watching Pereiro who, in addition to his runner-up status last year, placed 10th in 2004 and 2005. He also won an award for being the most aggressive cyclist that year. Pereiro, though, is playing a supporting role to his team's leader, Valverde, but if Valverde drops out — as he has in both of the past two years — Pereiro could emerge as his team's front-runner.

Alejandro Valverde
Leon Neal, AFP/Getty Images

Alejandro Valverde

Team: Caisse d'Epargne

Country: Spain

As of the end of stage 16, Valverde is ranked 7th in overall time standings.

Spaniard Alejandro Valverde is widely considered one of the most promising cyclists of his generation. The 27-year-old is an excellent climber and time-trialist as well as a good sprinter and overall rider. His career, however, has been marred by accidents and injuries. During the 2005 Tour, Valverde was forced to withdraw from the race due to a knee injury – but not before beating Lance Armstrong in the sprint into Courchevel, in the Alps. The following year, Valverde had similar luck. After placing in the top three in both the Vuelta al Pais Vasco and the Tour de Romandie, Valverde was seen as one of the favorites in the 2006 Tour de France, particularly after a doping scandal pushed several front-runners to withdraw. However, he crashed during the Tour and again had to withdraw, this time for a fractured right collarbone. Valverde has yet to complete a Tour. Nevertheless, Valverde's team, the Spain-based Caisse d'Epargne, is relying on him to lead them to victory.

Recently, Valverde's name has been linked to the Spanish doping investigation, Operation Puerto. More than 50 cyclists have been implicated in the scandal for ties to Eufemiano Fuentes, a doctor accused of running a blood-doping clinic in Madrid. Last year, nine competitors, including 1997 winner Jan Ullrich, were forced to withdraw for suspected involvement in the doping scandal. However, Valverde has not been found guilty of doping.

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