July 4 (Bloomberg)Tour de France cyclists set out on the race's 3,500-kilometer (2,175-mile) route this weekend without last year's champion and an Australian as favorite.
Cadel Evans, runner-up last year, is favored by bookmakers after 2007 winner Alberto Contador's Astana team was barred because two of its riders failed doping tests last year.
The three-week race, which starts in Brest in northwest France on July 5, is trying to recover after another outbreak of scandals at last year's race.
"The race has had a rough time, but the scandals are a catalyst for change," Jonathan Vaughters, manager of the Boulder, Colorado-based Garmin-Chipotle team, said in an interview. "Without them, nothing changes."
While Contador's win with the now-disbanded Discovery Channel team isn't disputed, Michael Rasmussen was ejected while leading after missing drug controls. Pre-race favorite Alexandre Vinokourov failed a test for blood doping.
In 2006, Floyd Landis was the first Tour winner to be stripped of the title for drug use. He lost a final appeal against the suspension this week.
Contador will be missed, said fellow Spaniard Carlos Sastre, who is seeking his first win after five top-10 finishes since 2002.
Still a Victory
Even so, Sastre said, it won't "take the gloss off victory for the cyclist who wins after 3,500 kilometers in the heat, mountains, wind and rain."
Contador beat Evans by 23 seconds last year in the closest finish since 1989.
Seeking to make the race more unpredictable, Paris-based organizer Amaury Sport Organisation dropped the time-trial opening for the first time since 1967.
The prologue will be replaced with a 195-kilometer (121- mile) stage from Brest to Plumelec. The organizer also dropped "time bonuses," a move designed to help keep riders closer together and lead to tighter stage finishes.
The bonuses had been awarded to leading riders at pre-set times during stages.
On June 3, Amaury said it would switch the race's jurisdiction to the French cycling federation from the Union Cycliste Internationale, escalating a four-year power struggle with the world ruling body.
The ruling body says the decision is "deeply regrettable." Drug tests will now be done by France's anti- doping laboratory instead of the Aigle, Switzerland-based UCI.
With no previous race winners in this year's 180-strong field, Evans is a 2-1 favorite with London-based SportingBet Plc, an online bookmaker. He is seeking to become the first Australian to win the 105-year-old race.
"Cadel Evans is favorite on paper, but it's a very open race," Vaughters said. "The course has a lot of middle-sized mountains that lend itself to unpredictability."
Spain's Alejandro Valverde is at 7-2 and Russia's Denis Menchov at 5-1. Sastre and Andy Schleck, teammates on the CSC team, and Damiano Cunego are all at 9-1.
Valverde won the Dauphine Libere and Liege-Bastogne-Liege race this year, but has yet to win a major race lasting three weeks. Luxembourg's Schleck, his brother Franck and Sastre can compete with anyone in the mountain stages, CSC team manager Bjarne Riis said.
The squad has the talent to succeed, he said. "We'll have to play our cards right as far as tactics go," he said,
Andy Schleck, 23, is competing at his first Tour de France after finishing second at last year's Giro d'Italia. Franck Schleck, 28, won the 2006 Alpe d'Huez stage that is included in this year's course.
Like two years ago, the Alps follow the Pyrenees in this year's race. There are 21 stages, one finishing across the French border in Italy, and the traditional finale on the Champs Elysees in Paris is on July 27.
Garmin-Chipotle, formerly called Slipstream and founded in 2003, is the only U.S.-based team in its first Tour de France.
The team's best-known rider, David Millar of the U.K., may have a chance of taking the race lead early on. There are three American ridersDanny Pate, Christian Vande Velde and Will Frischkornin the nine-man team.
"We're hoping to pick up the yellow jersey in the first 10 days," Vaughters said. "That would be a dream."
Seven-time champion Lance Armstrong's former Discovery Channel team, which was based in Austin, Texas, disbanded after the last Tour after saying doping scandals in cycling were hampering its search for a new sponsor.
--Editors: Michael Sillup, Vince Golle
To contact the reporters on this story: Alex Duff in the Madrid newsroom at +34-91-700-9602 or at aduff4bloomberg.net