2012 Tour de France: Top contenders
Updated: June 29, 2012, 6:38 PM ETAssociated Press
PARIS -- A look at some of the top contenders at the 2012 Tour de France:
Cadel Evans, 35, Australia, BMC Racing TeamThe defending champion and twice runner-up has every chance of repeating, backed by a strong team that includes rising American star Tejay van Garderen and veteran George Hincapie, who's starting his record-setting 17th Tour de France. Evans' spring classics campaign was hampered by poor health, including a sinus infection and a leg injury. But the 2009 world champ has bounced back, adding a second-place overall and the green sprinter's jersey in this month's Criterium du Dauphine to his March victory in Corsica's Criterium International. The 2012 Tour, which includes more than 100 kilometers (62 miles) of time trials, also plays to one of Evans' strengths, as he showed in his close second to world champ Tony Martin in the Tour's final time trial around Grenoble last year.
Bradley Wiggins, 32, Britain, Team SkyBritain's best hope for a Tour de France champion since Wiggins' childhood idol Tom Simpson died on the slopes of Mount Ventoux in 1967. Wiggins crashed out of last year's Tour but has been on a tear ever since, following up his third in the 2011 Spanish Vuelta with this year's never-before-equaled triple of Paris-Nice, Tour de Romandie, and the Criterium Dauphine. Wiggins himself says he's "a favorite, but not the favorite" going into the Tour. He also dismisses concerns that he's peaked too early, saying "It's been a bloody long peak, I'll tell you." Wiggins can also count on a powerful Team Sky squad, with reigning world champ Mark Cavendish, Norway's two-time stage winner Edvald Boasson Hagen, and a strong cast of support riders who have been assembled with the sole aim of becoming Britain's first team to win cycling's greatest race. A big question remains over how Sky balances Wiggins' Tour dream with his and Cavendish's hopes of Olympic glory at the London Games only a week after the Tour.
Robert Gesink, 26, Netherlands, Rabobank"The Condor of Varsseveld" will lead the Dutch team. He's proven to be an overall threat in stage races for several years, adding this year's Tour of California to his victory in last year's Tour of Oman. Although he finished a disappointing 32nd in last year's Tour after a crash early in the race left him with lingering injuries, Gesink has been on the rise this year. He capped his California triumph in May with an astonishing win in the penultimate Stage 7 up 3,000-meter Mt. Baldy, then finished a strong fourth in this month's Tour de Suisse thanks to a gutsy ride in the Stage 7 time trial, showing his work in that discipline is paying dividends.
Jurgen Van den Broeck, 29, Belgium, Lotto BelisolVan den Broeck crashed out in the first week of last year's Tour, disappointing Belgian fans who'd hoped his fifth-place finish in the 2010 Tour heralded a possible coming of the first Belgian podium finisher at the race since second-placed Lucien Van Impe in 1981. Van den Broeck prepared well for the Tour with a fifth at the Criterium du Dauphine, behind Tour favorites Wiggins and Evans.
Ryder Hesjedal, 31, Canada, Garmin-BarracudaHesjedal's victory in May at the Giro d'Italia made the former mountain biker from British Columbia the first Canadian to win one of cycling's three major tour races. It was also the first major victory for Hesjedal, whose sixth place in the 2010 Tour de France was the highest Canadian finish in the race in 22 years. Two crashes in the first week of last year's Tour dashed any hopes of a repeat performance and he finished 17th overall. Hesjedal's Giro win was seen as a significant sign that cycling is cleaning up because the Canadian rides for a team, Garmin-Barracuda, that is widely praised for its tough anti-doping stance.
Tony Martin, 27, Germany, OmegaPharma-Quick StepThe reigning world time trial champion is one of the Belgian team's two strong contenders for the overall classification, alongside American Levi Leipheimer. Martin fell well short of his stated goal of a top-10 finish at last year's Tour, finishing 43rd after a woeful ride up Luz-Ardiden in the Pyrenees on Stage 12 cost him any chance of contending for the overall classification. But the rainbow stripes of the world champion and his trouncing of Evans, Alberto Contador and four-time world champ Fabian Cancellara in last year's time trial will make Martin the man to watch in the prologue and two long time trials. And lest it be forgotten, Martin's close second in the stage finish atop Mont Ventoux in 2009 showed he can also climb with the best.
Levi Leipheimer, 38, United States, OmegaPharma-Quick StepThe veteran could be the Belgian team's second potential overall contender thanks to his strong time trialing. The 2007 Tour time trial winner, Leipheimer finished 31st last year while riding in support of Andy Schleck on Team RadioShack. His podium finish in the 2007 Tour and second in the 2008 Spanish Vuelta show he can also be a threat in longer stage races.
Vincenzo Nibali, 27, Italy, Liquigas-Cannondale2010 Spanish Vuelta winner followed up with a second in the 2011 Giro d'Italia. This season he skipped the Giro to set his focus firmly on the Tour, after winning Tirreno-Adriatico in March. He hasn't competed in the Tour since finishing seventh in 2009. Should have strong support from veteran Ivan Basso and 22-year-old Slovak sensation Peter Sagan, but his announcement that he'll leave the Italian team at the end of the season could put a question mark over that.
Watching from home: Alberto Contador, Saxo Bank (doping ban), Andy Schleck, RadioShack Nissan Trek (injury).
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press