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Cyclists Gear Up For Saturday's Tour De France

The 97th edition of the Tour de France cycling race begins Saturday, July 3, in the Netherlands. The race starts with a prologue time trial in Rotterdam, followed by 20 stages covering a total distance of 3,642 kilometers.

Two-time Tour de France winner Alberto Contador of Spain is the defending champion and pre-race favorite heading into the Tour, after having won three races [Tour of Algarve, Vuelta de Castilla and Leon and Paris-Nice] in 2010.

But if he is to win again this year, he will have to do it without the support of former Astana teammate Lance Armstrong of the United States. Armstrong, who has won a record seven Tour de France titles, left Astana and helped found the new RadioShack team, which will compete in this year's Tour.

Vice president of Athletics for USA Cycling, Jim Miller, is responsible for the overseeing the national teams in all disciplines, including the world championship and Olympic teams. Miller said Contador is the favorite, but added there could be some surprises.

"I think you have a fairly wide-open race. Contador is a clear favorite for me given the amount of climbing. But Armstrong - you can never count him out because he is such a gamer (competitor)," Miller said. "Kind of at this point in his career, it is hard to suffer and die in every single race. But the Tour is different, it is motivating to him and I think when he gets in the Tour, you will see that he can suffer as much or more than you have seen all year long."

The 2010 race is comprised of nine flat stages, 10 mountain stages through the Pyrenees and the Alps, which include three finish lines at the summit, and an individual time trial. With riders traveling over cobblestones in some stages, Miller predicts an interesting race.

"It is actually a fantastic Tour this year. It is a hard route, it has a lot of climbing and the last week is especially difficult," said Miller. "The Pyrenees are going to be very hard. And then of course you finish with a long standard 50-kilometer TT (time trial) within the last couple days before the Champs-Élysées."

According to Miller, the Tour could be won or lost in the Pyrenees mountain stages.

"It is at the end of the third week of the Tour. Guys start getting tired, teams start getting tired. The stages are successively harder."

Different skills are needed for the climbing stages and time trials. But Miller said riders need both to claim the winner's yellow jersey at the end of the race.

"The Tour you have to do both - you have to time-trial and you have to climb. You cannot win the Tour without both characteristics."

Earlier this week, Lance Armstrong announced that this will be his final Tour de France.

Throughout his career, the seven-time champion has been a frequent target of doping rumors. Though he has been tested extensively, Armstrong has never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Athletics for USA Cycling Miller describes the situation as difficult.

"With all the random allegations out there, no one can ever really know the whole truth except the rider. It is tough, because anybody can make an allegation, anybody can say anything they want, and then the riders are ultimately presumed guilty until they prove themselves innocent. The important thing to recognize is that cycling, USADA (U.S. Anti-Doping Agency), UCI (International Cycling Union), WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency) have been very aggressive with their doping policies and they have done a very significant job of cleaning up the sport," Miller said.

With the hard work of those organizations, it is hoped that testing will show this year's race to be free of doping. The Tour ends with the traditional ride down the Champs-Élysées on Sunday July 25 in Paris.