PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica
Soccer’s World Cup. Football’s Vince Lombardi Trophy. Hockey’s Stanley Cup.
And, of course, the yellow jersey. No list of the most famous trophies in sports can be complete if it doesn’t include that gaudy shirt from the Tour de France – and British speedster Mark Cavendish aims to get his hands on the first one this year.
Over the next three weeks, 21 of them will be distributed at the 100th Tour. None will be more important than the last one – worn by the overall winner on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 21: Many pundits believe that will be either Britain’s Chris Froome or two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador of Spain.
But it would be a mistake to reduce the Tour to a two-horse race. Multiple heartbreaks, crashes and other dramas await over the meandering 2,110-mile trek along wind-swept sea sides, through flat plains and Alpine and Pyrenean mountain punishment, and even to a medieval island citadel in the English Channel.
The first story could be written by Cavendish: the “Manx Missile” is a favorite to win the mostly flat Stage 1 (132 miles) from Porto Vecchio to Bastia in the race debut on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica today.
The Briton, whose muscle, timing and accelerations make him the finest sprinter of his generation, already has won other coveted prizes in his sport. In 2011, he won both the green jersey given to the best Tour sprinter and the rainbow-striped jersey awarded to cycling’s road-race world champion.
The yellow jersey, however, has eluded his grasp.
“It’s not just one of the most iconic symbols in cycling, it’s one of the most iconic symbols in the world of sport,” Cavendish said. “To be able to wear that for at least a day in your life, it’s a thing to make any rider’s career. It’s a thing you dream about when you’re a child. It would be a beautiful thing.”
Cycling could use some beautiful things. This is the first Tour since Lance Armstrong was stripped of his record seven victories for doping, which he finally acknowledged on U.S. television after years of denials that were exposed as lies by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Despite millions spent on fighting drug use in the peloton, blasts from cycling’s checkered past keep on coming. Ahead of this race, French media reported that a Senate investigation into the effectiveness of doping controls pieced together evidence that a urine sample provided by long-beloved French rider Laurent Jalabert contained EPO, cycling’s designer drug, at the Tour of 1998.
Tour organizers will be hoping the racing drama of the next three weeks will push such miseries to the background.
In the traditional pre-race presentation, the 22 teams took a stage one after the other Thursday in Porto Vecchio, with its idyllic mountain backdrop on France’s “isle of beauty.” Hundreds of fans clapped politely, as white yachts stuck up like teeth from the shimmering blue Mediterranean.
Contador predicts an action-packed race in this comeback year for him. The 30-year-old Spaniard was stripped of his 2010 Tour title and missed out last year over a doping ban. He could be the biggest danger for Froome. Both riders excel in mountain climbs that feature heavily this year. But Contador said there would be more to this Tour than simply their rivalry.
“This year won’t just be the story of two riders; we’ll have more actors in this film,” he said.
“This year will see more action than in past years,” he added. Of Froome, he said: “I would have no motivation to be here if I thought I couldn’t beat him.”
Among longer-shot contenders are 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans of Australia – though at 36, his legs aren’t the freshest – and his young BMC teammate Tejay Van Garderen of the United States, plus Spaniards Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha.
Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner and a Sky teammate of Froome, is injured and sitting out this year. Last year, Froome was more impressive than Wiggins in the mountains, but that race was more heavily weighted to time trials – Wiggins’ specialty – than in this year’s edition.
Like Wiggins last year, Froome has had a nearly flawless run-up to the Tour: the 28-year-old Kenyan-born Briton won four of five races he started. He said he’s confident but not fond of the “favorite” moniker.
“It’s an absolutely privilege for me to be in this position,” he said, but “there is a certain amount of pressure that comes with it.”
“Coming in as the race favorite sets that precedent of people looking to beat you ... so it definitely opens doors that people may be ganging up,” he said, acknowledging the possibility that Valverde, Contador and Rodriguez might form a Spanish alliance against him.
Contador is high in Froome’s mind.
“I don’t think we have seen Contador at his best yet,” he said. “His goal was never to perform well at any of the races building up to the Tour but then to come to the Tour at his absolute best. I believe he’ll be here at his best – and that’s what we’ll expect.”
Andy Schleck, who inherited the 2010 title stripped from Contador for testing positive for the muscle-building drug clenbuterol, said this year’s mountainous course would have suited him under normal circumstances. But he’s coming off a rough year, including a crash injury to his lower back that kept him out last year. The Luxembourg rider considers himself an “outsider,” not a favorite.
The race spends three days on Corsica’s winding, hilly roads. It then sets off on a clockwise run through mainland France along the Mediterranean, into the Pyrenees, then up to Brittany and the fabled Mont-Saint-Michel island citadel before a slashing jaunt southeastward toward the Alps before the Paris finish.
“The Tour’s always full of surprises,” said Garmin-Sharp team director Jonathan Vaughters, insisting his American squad could have contenders such as Ryder Hesjedal of Canada and Andrew Talansky of the United States. “The easy answer is: Yes, it’s Chris Froome vs. Alberto Contador, but I think we’re going to try and make the answer not as easy.”
AP Sports Writer Jerome Pugmire contributed from Porto Vecchio.