Cycling gears up for 100th edition of Tour de France
Paris: The historic 100th edition of the Tour de France starts next week, with the sport seeking to move out of the long shadow cast by the Lance Armstrong doping scandal with a celebration of cycling`s most famous race.
This year`s race, which starts on the Mediterranean island of Corsica on Saturday, is the first since the US rider was sensationally stripped of his record seven Tour wins after being exposed as a serial drug cheat.
The shocking downfall of the world-famous Texan not only left a void in the Tour honours list from 1999 to 2005 but plunged cycling into crisis and self-examination over its drug-addled past.
But in contrast to the pessimism surrounding cycling over the last year, the build-up to the opening 213-kilometre stage of "La Grande Boucle" has been celebratory.
Commemorative books have been published and exhibitions mounted on the centenary running of the annual race that has become a worldwide symbol of France.
Celebratory concerts and chances for amateur cyclists to ride stages before the arrival of the professionals are also planned, as the 198 riders race 3,404 kilometres over three weeks to a first ever sundown finish on the Champs Elysees boulevard in Paris on July 21.
Asked about the spectre of doping in May this year, Tour director Christian Prudhomme said: "That`s the past... Cycling is not a perfect world, but it`s changed."
This year`s Tour, first contested in 1903 with just 60 riders and over only six mammoth stages, is shaping up to be a head-to-head battle between 2012 runner-up Chris Froome and two-time winner Alberto Contador.
Nairobi-born Briton Froome, dubbed the "White Kenyan", and Spain`s Contador are likely to be challenged by 2011 champion Cadel Evans of Australia and Spain`s world number on Joaquim Rodriguez.
Last year`s winner Bradley Wiggins -- Froome`s compatriot and Team Sky team-mate -- is a notable absentee after withdrawing through injury.
Vincenzo Nibali, third last year, opted this year to concentrate on the Giro d`Italia, a decision which paid off as he secured his maiden Grand Tour win.
Luxemburger Andy Schleck will saddle up on Corsica but his team has ruled out a podium finish for the 2010 winner as he returns to form after a lengthy absence with injury.
It has left Contador, Evans and Rodriguez as Froome`s closest challengers in a race which features six stages in the high mountains and three time trials, including a team event in the south coast city of Nice.
But "El Pistolero" Contador, one of only a handful of riders to have won all three Grand Tours, has this year had little opportunity to fire his imaginary victory gun as he crosses the finish line.
In contrast, Froome has won the Tour of Oman, the Tour de Romandie, the Criterium International, as well as the Criterium du Dauphine, setting him up as a leading contender for the leader`s yellow jersy.
"So far this year I feel we`ve ticked all the right boxes in the build-up to the Tour de France," he said.
"Winning those races in their own respect -- those are not small races -- has given me a lot of confidence.
"I feel as if I`m in fantastic condition coming into the last week. I`ve got the backing of a fantastic team. I don`t think at this point I could ask for too much more."
While Froome has pointed to the "six or seven guys" who could "be competitive", he believes Contador is his main threat.
In comparison, Contador has endured a tougher, less successful season on the road than his British rival.
The gulf in race form between the pair was evident during the Criterium du Dauphine, during which Contador finished a distant 61st in the time trial.
It was a remarkably poor result for a man who over the years has sealed overall victory with blistering individual performances over the clock.
Contador indicated days later, however, that he was confident of reaching peak condition when the going gets tough in July.
"The form is perfect, I`m arriving just where I want to be. I calculate that I am at 75 percent and I wouldn`t change a thing for the condition I have now," he said.
Instead of racing the Dauphine, Evans honed his form at the Giro d`Italia where, despite his comparative lack of racing days this season, he battled rivals and adverse weather alike to seal a commendable third place finish.
It was his fifth career podium finish on a Grand Tour and has put the Australian firmly into the mix.
Rodriguez lines up for what is only his second participation as something of an outsider, albeit with a runner-up place from the Giro d`Italia (2012) and two third place finishes in the Tour of Spain.