Tour de France: The British are coming... hunting for jerseys

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The Independent Online

For the first time since the 1980s, Great Britain have serious chances of victory in not one but two major classifications in cycling's blue riband event, the Tour de France, which starts next Saturday.

To see one Briton, Bradley Wiggins, going for the yellow jersey is a rare treat. But to have another, Mark Cavendish, as the favourite for the green points jersey and the bunch sprints means that for three weeks, no stage – flat or mountainous – will be lacking in red, white and blue-tinged interest.

As if that weren't enough to make the 2010 Tour feel like a new beginning for British cycling, the participation of the new British squad Team Sky adds another ingredient to the mix. With triple Olympic gold medallist Wiggins at their head, they could shape the outcome of the race. He is the first Briton to start with serious chances of victory in 20 years. He had never built his entire season around the Tour, but he has now.

Even in 2009, when he equalled Britain's best-ever placing with Robert Millar – fourth overall – Wiggins' initial goal was the top 20. Now the 30-year-old will power down the start ramp in Rotterdam on Saturday aiming for yellow in Paris.

"I would place Bradley up there with all the other favourites," says the reigning champion, Alberto Contador. "He's got a very solid chance of doing well, and this year you can't rule him out at all."

Wiggins has said that although taking yellow is the goal, he would sign on the dotted line if somebody guaranteed him a top three on the Champs Elysées. That isn't an attempt to avoid pressure, it's realism.

Wiggins knows that Contador and the 2009 runner-up, Andy Schleck, are ahead of him in the Tour game. Both are younger, more experienced three-week stage racers, and both have so far been better climbers. Taking third on what is only Wiggins' second bid for overall classification in a three-week stage race would make him Britain's first podium performer. That would be no mean acheivement.

For Cavendish, there are no such nuances. Each year that the Manxman has ridden the Tour, he has raised his targets. In 2007, he was here to get a taste for major stage racing. In 2008 he took four stages in a single Tour, a GB record. In 2009, he took a staggering six, the biggest total amassed by a single sprinter since legendary speedster Freddy Maertens in the late 1970s.

With that level of achievement, capturing the Tour's green points jersey – never won by a Briton – should have been a formality last year. Instead, his chances were finally dashed after an over-strict race official penalised him for moving his approach line in the sprint to a stage finish.

Cavendish's build-up in 2010 has been anything but straightforward. His spring Classics campaign suffered from a pre-season battle with the consequences of a severely infected tooth, and last week he had the worst crash of his career in the Tour de Suisse.

The Manx Missile says he is back on track and his HTC-Columbia squad offer a perfectly groomed lead-out train for the bunch sprints. An early win – ideally next Sunday in Belgium, Cavendish's favourite racing country – would resolve any lingering doubts.

Were Wiggins in yellow, the Tour would have got off to a perfect start for Britain, and with expectations of further success more than justified.

Four to watch...

Bradley Wiggins (GB, Sky)

Britain's best chance of a Tour victory since Robert Millar over two decades ago, Wiggins' aim will be improving on fourth place in 2009. He can count on powerful team back-up, a solid build-up and – for the first time – an all-out focus on the Tour.

Alberto Contador (Spain, Astana)

The favourite, with four major stage races, including two Tours de France, under his belt. Only weak points are his team – low on supporting firepower – and a first week littered with tough stages through terrain that does him no favours.

Lance Armstrong (US, Radio Shack)

Never rule out the seven-times Tour winner, who will be 40 next year. Ultra-motivated and the leader of one of the strongest Tour teams, he might not win the Tour but he will be a big factor in who does.

Cadel Evans (Australia, BMC)

Twice a runner-up, he is famous for being difficult with the media. He barked at a journalist that he would "decapitate him" if he touched his dog again. You have been warned.

Alasdair Fotheringham