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***** FIVE-STARS *****
• Alexandre Vinokourov (Astana): As cold and icy as the windswept steppes of his native Kazakhstan, "Vino" is the lone five-star favorite in this year's ESPN.com power chart. It's this year or never for ever-aggressive Vinokourov, who speaks in a language of grunts and whispers discernible only to his Astana teammates. At 33, an age when most riders are thinking retirement, Vino is more determined than ever to win the Tour. He was left out of last year's edition when five of his ex-teammates were implicated in the Puerto doping scandal. Vinokourov was unscathed by the controversy and won the Tour of Spain (Vuelta a España) last fall in a personal revenge tour that looks to be satiated only if he can climb atop the highest step of the final podium in Paris.
Strengths: Aggression and durability. Vinokourov can sniff out vulnerability in his rivals and throw down deadly accelerations to leave his adversaries gasping in his wake. Built harder than Kazakh steel, Vino never cracks.
Weaknesses: That same unbridled aggression can result in some questionable tactics, but many of his infamous long-distance no-hope sorties came during the Lance Armstrong era, when Vino was the only rider who dared attack the seven-time champion. He promises to be more surgical in the application of pain this year.
How he might win: Attack until they crack, then defend in the time trials.
Tour record: 1999 25th, 2000 15th, 2001 16th, 2002 DNS, 2003 3rd + stage win, 2004 DNS, 2005 5th + two stages, 2006 DNS.
Prediction: He'll win -- or lose to teammate Andreas Kloeden.
**** FOUR STARS ****
• Andreas Kloeden (Astana): Long the promising understudy to now-disgraced German TDF king Jan Ullrich, but all that has changed now that "Klodi" is his own man at Astana. Well, sort of. Both Vinokourov and Kloeden agree to rally behind the rider with the best legs after the Alps, but there's a chance of breakdown of loyalties in the otherwise favored Astana team.
Strengths: Superb time-trial skills coupled with steady climbing legs. The 32-year-old never gets dropped so badly by the mountain goats that he can't kill them in the race against the clock.
Weaknesses: Prone to injury and lacks the killer instinct. The handsome German seems to be deficient in the pain genome and raced in the shadow of Ullrich so long that he doesn't know what it takes to win.
How he might win: If he can stay close in the mountains and make up the difference in the final TT -- that's how he has scored both his previous Tour podiums.
Tour record: 2001 26th, 2002 DNS, 2003 DNF, 2004 2nd, 2005 DNF, 2006 3rd + stage win.
Prediction: Second overall, this time behind Vinokourov.
• Levi Leipheimer (Discovery Channel): The hardworking Californian leads American hopes this year and is back at Discovery Channel (formerly U.S. Postal Service) after racing on foreign teams for five years. A winner of major races in June and August, the 33-year-old hopes to become the fourth American to win the Tour if he can hit his peak in July.
Strengths: His meticulous preparation and attention to details. Stronger than ever, and more comfortable now that he's back on an American team, Leipheimer has worked on his agility in the climbs to stay with the favorites.
Weaknesses: Can never seem to fire at full cylinders during a Tour time trial.
How he might win: Hits his peak in July and finally has a good Tour time trial.
Tour record: 2002 9th, 2003 DNF, 2004 8th, 2005 6th, 2006 13th.
Prediction: A well-deserved podium.
*** THREE STARS ***
• Denis Menchov (Rabobank): He's been called a "future Tour winner" ever since he dominated the cutthroat amateur circuit in the late 1990s. A stage win last year in the Pyrenees and his overall victory at the 2005 Vuelta (after winner Roberto Heras was DQ'd for doping) bolsters his confidence. "Deni" is 29, so the future is now.
Strengths: Heartless like a good Russian should be, especially in the mountains, but it's in his improving time trialing that his candidacy is on the rise.
Weaknesses: Can't maintain highest level in the crucial final week.
How he might win: Has durability to survive Pyrenees with the leader's jersey and fends off the TT specialists in the final race of truth.
Tour record: 2001 47th, 2002 93rd, 2003 11th + best young rider, 2004 DNF, 2005 85th, 2006 6th + stage win.
• Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto): A former World Cup mountain bike champion, Evans made a big splash when he grabbed the maglia rosa and almost won the 2002 Giro d'Italia in his first year on the road. Now 30, he suffered through two injury-plagued seasons before returning to equal Phil Anderson for Australia's best-ever Tour result with fifth last year.
Strengths: Ambition and tenacity -- he will never give up despite the odds. His mountain biking experience helps him push himself to the red line at maximum effort and hold it. Vows to become first Antipode to win the Tour.
Weaknesses: Just a notch below the big-time faves in both the climbs and the time trials, but he's improving.
How he might win: Uncorks a dare-all attack at an opportune moment.
Tour record: 2005 8th, 2006 5th.
Prediction: A stage win and closer to the podium.
• Carlos Sastre (CSC): The only pure climber among the Tour favorites, Sastre nearly stole away with the maillot jaune last year when he was the strongest rider in the Alps. Handicapped by poor time-trial skills, the undervalued Spaniard finally is attracting attention from Spanish media.
Strengths: Lethal in the mountains. Known as Mr. Consistency, the 32-year-old is one of the few who has the punch to drop the leaders in the high French mountain passes. With the decisive climbing stages coming in the Pyrenees this year, having tens of thousands of Spanish fans choking the local roads will only help.
Weaknesses: Time trials and descending. You'd think a Spanish mountain goat would be able to go downhill just as well as he goes up, but he lost the maillot jaune by 12 seconds last year because he gave back too much time on the Joux-Plane descent into Morzine. Then he sank from second to fourth in the final TT.
How he might win: Open up huge gaps in the summit finishes and hold on for dear life in the TTs.
Tour record: 2001 20th, 2002 10th, 2003 9th + stage win, 2004 8th, 2005 21st, 2006 4th.
Prediction: Top-5, oh-so-close yet again.
** TWO STARS **
• Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne): Spain's new darling, Valverde hasn't finished the Tour in two starts, yet most Iberian pundits believe he could become the first Spaniard to win since Miguel Indurain won five straight in the early 1990s.
Strengths: Jack of all trades, solid in climbs, fast in sprints, defends in time trials.
Weaknesses: Master of nothing -- the 27-year-old won't be able to stay with the fleetest mountain goats, and he'll lose two minutes to the TT specialists.
How he might win: Exploiting his trademark nose for victory, picking up time bonuses and being aggressive when others err on the side of caution.
Tour record: 2005 DNF, stage win, 2006 DNF.
Prediction: Arrive in Paris for first time within top 10, good enough to give the Spanish a reason to throw a fiesta.
• Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne): Known as the man who might be Tour king, Pereiro was runner-up to Floyd Landis last year after he snuck away in a 30-minute breakaway in stage 13. "Oscarito" could be named the 2006 winner if Landis loses in his bid to fend off doping charges.
Strengths: Opportunistic -- ability to sniff out a winning breakaway.
Weaknesses: Always has one bad day, sometimes two.
How he might win: The peloton will never give him a half-hour head start like last year, so he'll need to try to pick a little here and a little there, then keep his fingers crossed.
Tour record: 2004 10th, 2005 10th + stage win, 2006 2nd.
Prediction: Stage win and top-10.
• Christophe Moreau (AG2R-Prevoyance): At 36, Moreau seems to be getting better with age. One of only two still-active members of the Affaire Festina that blew the lid open on organized doping during the 1998 Tour, Moreau says he's been riding clean since then. He blew the doors off everyone at June's Dauphiné Libéré, but he might have burned his matches too soon to be at top form for the Tour.
Strengths: Panache -- Moreau is consistently the top Frenchman in the GC (he lost that honor last year to teammate Cyril Dessel) and typically goes on a strategic sortie to chase the climber's jersey or a stage victory.
Weaknesses: Plagued by inconsistency and sometimes preposterous tactics -- people ask, "Just where does he think he's going?"
How he might win: A miracle -- a Frenchman hasn't won the Tour since 1985.
Tour record: 1996 75th, 1997 19th, 1998 DNF, 1999 27th, 2000 4th, 2001 DNF + prologue victory, 2002 DNF, 2003 8th, 2004 12th, 2005 11th, 2006 8th.
Prediction: Top Frenchman and a stage win.
Others to watch
The Tour always springs surprises, not always good ones, especially for the betting man.
There are half-a-dozen riders who are starting to strut their stuff and will be working up the power charts in the coming years. Among them are Frank Schleck (27, Luxembourg, Team CSC), a winner at Alpe d'Huez last year and 11th overall. A strong climber with improving time-trial skills, he will be co-captain with Carlos Sastre. Too bad his 22-year-old younger brother, Andy, isn't starting. He just finished second overall at the Tour of Italy in May. Dave Zabriskie (28, USA, CSC) is America's next grand Tour hope and could make his presence felt this year. As a Tour rookie in 2005, he pipped Tour king Armstrong in the opening time trial to become just the third American to wear the yellow jersey. Zabriskie is inconsistent in the mountains, and no one seems to know what he is capable of -- perhaps not even Zabriskie himself. Remy Di Gregorio (21, France, FDJeux) is the racer every Frenchman has been dreaming about since 1985, when Bernhard Hinault became the last one to win the Tour. Di Gregorio is a climbing prodigy, and many believe he could become France's next superstar. Thomas Dekker (22, Netherlands, Rabobank) is a big-toothed Dutchman who flies in the time trials and many believe has the potential to win the Big One someday. Alberto Contador (24, Spain, Discovery Channel) nearly died in 2005 when he suffered a brain aneurysm from a childhood condition. Two surgeries later, he won Paris-Nice in March and will be bucking for the best young rider's jersey. Yaroslav Popovych (27, Ukraine, Discovery Channel) won the young rider's jersey in his 2005 Tour debut and won a stage last year. He'll be the joker behind Leipheimer at Discovery, but should be ready for a run toward the podium next year.Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.