Paris: Much to the dismay of Tour de France organisers, a cloud of doping suspicion will hang over their race, and in particular over triple champion Alberto Contador, when the 2011 edition begins Saturday.
The 28-year-old Contador will start the race from Passage du Gois in the Vendee region still waiting for the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) to rule on an appeal concerning a failed dope test in last year`s race.
Contador was cleared of wrongdoing by the Spanish federation but the International Cycling Union (UCI) and the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) appealed.
The CAS will not hear the appeal until August, meaning that Contador, the overwhelming favourite, could end up losing two Tour titles if the decision goes against him.
Last year, the Tour was rocked by Floyd Landis`s doping allegations against seven-times champion and fellow American Lance Armstrong.
Contador`s presence on the Tour, while his case remains unresolved, is another embarrassment this year.
"We wanted a quick resolution, before the Tour, but it looks like it was too much to ask," Tour director Christian Prudhomme told reporters.
On the road, the slender Spaniard has been his brilliant and dominant self this season, snatching nine victories and winning the Giro d`Italia in merciless fashion, putting his rivals in the shade.
Contador, whom Armstrong described as "the most talented guy to ever throw a leg over a bike," used his outstanding climbing abilities to destroy the field in Italy and could become the first rider since Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve a Giro/Tour double.
This year`s route will favour the climbers and the Tour is likely to be decided during a tough third week in the Alps, where the race went for the first time 100 years ago.
The Col du Galibier will be climbed twice, with one stage finishing at l`Alpe d`Huez and featuring the famous 21 hairpin bends to the ski resort.
Twenty-three mountain passes are included in the Tour and it looks like only Andy Schleck could be capable of beating Contador.
Contador himself admits his form is something of an unknown quantity after his exertions in the Giro.
"As time goes by, I feel more and more rested (after the Giro) but I`m still a bit in the dark because all I did was rest," Contador, one of only five men with titles in all three grands Tours, said last week.
"I don`t know how I will respond (to the efforts). Undoubtedly, (compared to those who did not ride the Giro), I lack physical but also mental freshness."
Contador, who was sometimes booed by the fans during the Giro, could also get a cool reception from the French crowd, but the determined Spaniard is used to it, as well to the media grilling he is likely to face.
Last year, the crowd hissed at him after he gained 39 seconds on Schleck following his attack in a mountain stage after the Luxembourg rider`s chain had come off.
Schleck, who has finished runner-up to Contador in the last two years, will once again be the champion`s top challenger on the French roads, with a handful of outsiders hoping to make it to the podium.
Schleck left Saxo Bank to launch his own outfit, Leopard Trek with several others, including his brother Frank and Olympic and world time-trial world champion Fabian Cancellara.
In the absence of last year`s third-placed Denis Menchov, whose team were not invited, the battle for the podium is likely to involve Bradley Wiggins, who is looking to become the first Briton to finish in the top three.
The Team Sky leader won the Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month and looks in great form, having changed his preparations for the Tour.
Australian Cadel Evans, the 2009 world champion, is still looking for a maiden grand Tour title after repeatedly being tipped for glory.
Spain`s Samuel Sanchez, backed by an Euskaltel team of Basque climbers, finished fourth last year after being leapfrogged by Menchov following the final time trial.
Belgian Jurgen van den Broeck and Dutchman Robert Gesink also have the climbing abilities to handle a tough Tour, while Slovenian Janez Brajkovic is filling the big shoes left empty by Armstrong after the American retired.
Italian Ivan Basso skipped his beloved Giro to concentrate on the Tour but a crash during training hampered his preparations and his form is under question.