BREST, France - Here's what victory will look like for Tour de France organizers: The riders reach the finish line in three weeks with no doping scandals.
Cycling's most prestigious race begins today, trying to shake its history of drugs and cheating. The turmoil has left this year's race without many of the sport's biggest names. The loss of glamour, however, gives a new crop of riders a chance to step forward.
Cadel Evans, Alejandro Valverde, Carlos Sastre, Denis Menchov, and Damiano Cunego are among the most likely to prevail in the 2,175-mile trek.
"I'd rate myself as a pretty good chance to win," said Evans, who has improved from eighth place in 2005 to fourth the next year and runner-up in 2007. One sign of potential stardom? He now has the same bodyguard Lance Armstrong once did.
The race begins with a 123-mile flat ride through Brittany. For the first time since 1967, the Tour will begin without an opening-day prologue.
It also starts without a defending champion for the second straight year. The team of 2007 winner Alberto Contador, Astana, wasn't invited because of doping scandals it faced in the last two years. Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 title after testing positive for synthetic testosterone.
Other big names out this year are Kazakhstan's Alexandre Vinokourov, who was removed from the Tour last year for a positive test for a blood transfusion that led to the ouster of his entire Astana team, and Astana rider Levi Leipheimer.
Ivan Basso, the 2006 Giro d'Italia winner and two-time Tour podium finisher, is also absent. The Italian is serving the last few months of a two-year ban he received after acknowledging involvement in the Spanish blood-doping investigation known as Operation Puerto.
"People are talking about the ones who are absent, but once the race starts, people will stop talking about them and start talking about those who are here," said Patrice Leclerc, head of Tour organizer ASO.
Armstrong likes Evans's chances to win and ruled out Cunego, saying he is not a strong enough climber or time-trial racer.
"He'll never win the Tour . . . and that's not a slap at him," the seven-time champion told cyclingnews.com. "He's a little guy. I just don't think he's a Tour rider."
Evans said he's most worried about Russia's Menchov, the Tour's best young rider in 2003 and the fifth-place finisher in 2006. Sastre, a Spaniard who has finished in the top 10 for five of the last six Tours, has a strong CSC team, including the Schleck brothers - Andy and Frank.
Valverde looks strong after winning the Spanish championship and the Dauphine Libere race last month. But because of crashes and other ailments, the Spaniard finished only one of the four Tours he started, with a sixth-place finish last year.
"I am here really to fight for the podium. But from the moment that you're involved in fighting for one of the top three spots, it's clear: Why not first?" Valverde said. "If in the end I'm second or third, I'll be satisfied, too."
This year's 95th edition of the Tour takes riders from Brittany through the Massif Central range. The race then moves through the Pyrenees, across Provence to the Alps, and into Paris for the July 27 finish on the Champs-Elysees. Time trials await in Stage 4 and the next-to-last Stage 20.
Organizers hope fans will focus on the drama of racing, not doping. Scandal overshadowed the 2007 Tour, which ended in the race's closest finish: Contador beat Evans by 23 seconds and Leipheimer by 31.
"This race has never been as open as this year, so I'm convinced that this Tour has everything it needs to be a great Tour," Leclerc said. "It's up to the riders to give us the answer."