He started the season with wins in three major stage races: the Tour of California, Paris-Nice and the Tour de Georgia. His chances took a slight hit when teammates Santiago Botero and Giro runner-up Jose Enrique Gutierrez were suspended by Phonak officials for being linked to the doping scandal that threatens to overshadow this entire race. Even so, with no Jan Ullrich or Ivan Basso, here is your new race favorite.
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The stoic Montanan is on a roll. He placed sixth in last year's Tour, a race in which he has never finished lower than ninth. More recently he won the Dauphine, where he showed grit and killer instinct, recovering from a first-stage fall to attack on the legendary Mont Ventoux. This could be his year.
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If Hincapie falters, Discovery will ride for Popo, a dazzling young all-around rider who represents the team's future.
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The gifted young Spaniard is coming off a pair of victories in last spring's one-day classics, the Flèche Wallonne and Liège-Bastogne-Liège. He has been described as "the future of cycling" by Amstrong, whom Valverde beat to the summit of Courchevel in last year's Tour. Even so, his best days are probably a year or two away.
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Lance Armstrong's most trusted consigliere since 1999 need no longer hide his light under a bushel. While his time-trialing is superb and his climbing dramatically improved from his early days in the peloton, it remains to be seen if he has the right stuff to contend for the overall title.
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A brilliant, predatory talent whose team is a chocolate mess, Vino left T-Mobile to lead off Liberty Seguros, which withdrew its sponsorship when the team director was busted by Spanish police. The pride of Kazakhstan stands accused of no wrongdoing. The race would be far less interesting without him.
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