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Over the next 10 pages we analyse the key Tour battlegrounds, we examine the contenders' form to date and we stick our necks out and pick a winner

Alberto Contador. The end.

Well, it might not be k as simple as that. If the ■ opening few days of the Tour are as chaotic as we suspect they will be, Contador could be three minutes behind before the race even hits the mountains.

The 2010 Tour is unique for the wide spread of abilities a rider requires to do well. It's much more than a test of climbing and time trialling, although the winner will undoubtedly be good at both — there's a hair-raising first weekend, where team tactics and hard terrain could punish riders who aren't exactly in the right place at the right time. And between the Alps and Pyrenees, one of the toughest transitions in years — ideal territory for ambushes, and a very bad place indeed to be isolated. Tactical racing in Grand Tours has been making a quiet comeback in recent years, especially outside the mountain stages, and Contador's rivals know that they'll have to fight him away from his home ground of the mountains if they are to beat him.

But that's not to say that just anybody could win. Contador remains the favourite, but we reckon there are

Words Edward Pickering Illustration CB Pencils Photos Graham Watson, Andy lones, Yuzuru Sunada

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another dozen riders with a legitimate claim to targeting the yellow jersey. And if they all turn up in Rotterdam with good form, under the right circumstances any one of them could win.

Cycle Sport has broken down the Tour de France into the key battlegrounds, explained the tactics necessary to take the advantage, and identified the riders likely to do well in each. We've also made a few predictions of our own, and ranked the riders in terms of their key skills. Who's going to win? One of these men. How? Like this...

Left The Tour creates its own Paris-Roubaix on stage three

BATTLEGROUND ONE: THE CLASSICS IN A WEEKEND

ROTTERDAM-GUEUGNON, PROLOGUE-STAGE SIX

Following last year's crosswind carnage at La Grande Motte, and the stale tactics favoured by general classification riders and their teams in the mountains, ASO has embraced the chaotic possibilities of putting some unpredictability into the first week. The mountains might have the biggest crowds and the best scenery, but the exciting racing these days is to be found elsewhere.

Day one will probably be fairly predictable. A flat prologue is a flat prologue — one of the climbers will lose the best part of a minute, along with the Tour, in Rotterdam, and Denis Menchov may crash, but don't be surprised to see much smaller time gaps between the rest here than in Monaco's time trial in 2009. That was two times longer, and hilly. The only complication in Rotterdam will be the wind whipping in from the North Sea, which will probably favour Wiggins alone of our favourites, maybe also Contador. But the really interesting stuff is going to happen over the next three stages.

ASO has followed up the prologue with a three-day homage to the spring Classics — the crosswinds and coastal roads of Ghent-Wevelgem, the steep hills of the Ardennes and the cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Stage one could only be more exposed to the North Sea winds if they rode on the beach — the route hugs the artificial coastline of Holland, then heads south to Brussels. If the wind blows, it's going to be a dangerous place for the less resilient contenders, and for those without strong teams. The Schleck brothers will be fine — they can sit on Fabian Cancellara's wheel and are guaranteed a place near the front, but

Contador will be exposed if he needs gaps closing.

Contador and the climbers will be back in their comfort zone for stage two, from Brussels to Spa, but the complication will be that whoever is in yellow following the prologue and stage one (we recommend sticking a tenner on it being Fabian Cancellara) might be put out the back here. A better climber, possibly a GC favourite, maybe even Contador himself, could end this stage in yellow, far too early for his team to defend through to Paris. Good job that the next day is likely to be Contador's least pleasant experience on a bike since the Mur de Huy.

Left The Tour creates its own Paris-Roubaix on stage three

Above Col de la Madeleine will suit the best climbers

The cobbles are the straws that Contador's detractors have been grabbing at ever since the Tour launch last November. They might have a point — there are six sectors of pavé in the final hour of racing, and the final two are brutal. Wandignies-Hamage is 3.7 kilometres long, and Haveluy, at 10 kilometres to go, is rated five stars by ASO. Any number of skinny climbers could crash, get caught behind another skinny climber crashing, or just fall back, and again, team support will be crucial. This single stage is where the likes of Lance Armstrong and Bradley Wiggins could hurt Contador. In fact, Wiggins is probably one of the strongest all-

rounders in the entire bunch when you include cobbles (remember he was 25th in Paris-Roubaix last year). We'd like to see a British yellow jersey again — why not today?

And once the Classics are done, the sprinters can start chucking their weight around — the next three days have their names written all over them. Let's add a British green jersey to that yellow one.

ADVANTAGE: Wiggins, Armstrong

NOT STRONG ON THE COBBLES, BUT STRONG CLASSICS TEAMS WILL CARRY THEM THROUGH: Frank and Andy Schleck, Sastre, Leipheimer, Vande Velde, Evans, Nibali, Basso, Kreuziger_

VULNERABLE: Contador, Menchov

Above Col de la Madeleine will suit the best climbers

BATTLEGROUND TWO: THE ALPS _

TOURNUS-ST JEAN MAURIENNE, STAGES SEVEN-NINE

Cycle Sport's eyes glazed over for the bit about the Alps during last year's Tour presentation in Paris, and it wasn't just the feeling of dread about the previous night's wine bill following dinner with Jonathan Vaughters. No Alpe d'Huez. No Galibier. And a single measly climb over 2,000 metres — the hors-catégorie Madeleine — along with a long descent to the finish. Yawn.

But we've changed our tune, after closer inspection. As an organiser, you don't want to go crazy for the first mountain range of the race and risk a procession to Paris. Nor do you make the mistake ASO has made several times recently and have the first mountains too easy. This year the balance looks right.

The middle-mountain stage to Station des Rousses may not feature major climbs, but there are three category two climbs in the final 60 kilometres, including a summit finish. The next day is harder, with the difficult Col de la Ramaz, and the steady climb to Avoriaz.

But it's the final day to St Jean de Maurienne that will catch people out. On paper, it's one of the three hardest stages of the race, with a series of early climbs, then the monster climb of the Madeleine. It comes the day after the first rest day, which always has an unpredictable effect on some riders' form. And while it's a long way to the finish from the summit of the Madeleine — 18.5 kilometres of twisting descent, and 13.5 kilometres of valley roads — if two or three climbers are significantly stronger than the rest it's worth going for it on the Madeleine. Remember, it's not just that they're climbing one of the hardest mountains in the Alps, it's also that they'll already have three very hard climbs in their legs.

If Contador is really clever here, he will get away with Andy Schleck, put him into yellow, and gain enough time on the rest for it to be a two-horse race.

Outside threats

The elephants in the room

Other rideTS who may or may not have a say in matters

■ ANDREAS KLODEN

It's always feast or famine with Klôden — but will he have to play second or third fiddle at RadioShack?

■ ALEXANDRE VINOKOUROV

Nah. Had a good Liège and Giro, but let's not forget he's only ever had two decent overall Tours — 2003 and 2005. He'll get slaughtered in the Pyrenees.

Last year it was Christophe Le Mevel. The year before it was Sandy Casar. Somebody will kill themselves to finish in the top 15, and the French commentators won't let us forget it.

■ SOMEBODY ELSE WE'VE FORGOTTEN ABOUT

Gesink, probably. Or Michael Rogers. Oh, and don't forget Luis Leon Sanchez. All possible top 10s if things go right for them.

Their opposition will be the strength in depth of Liquigas and RadioShack, who can't match Contador's climbing, but can throw resources into the pursuit down the descent to the finish. Either way, the Alps will be more than something to pass the time while we wait for the Pyrenees.

ADVANTAGE: Contador, Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, Sastre, Basso

RIDERS WITH STRONG CLIMBING SUPPORT: Armstrong, Leipheimer, Nibali, Kreuziger, Menchov

VULNERABLE: Wiggins, Vande Velde, Evans

BATTLEGROUND THREE: THE TRANSITION STAGES

CHAMBERY-REVEL, STAGES 10-13

Ambush time. If a strong climber with a weak team (hint to Alberto Contador's rivals — we're talking about him) is in the yellow jersey after the Alps, there's little point in waiting for the Pyrenees to try to dislodge him. If he's climbing better than everybody else, it's going to end in tears somewhere before the summit of the Tourmalet.

Forget stages 11 and 13 — they are pretty flat. But stages 10 and especially

12 are going to be extremely hard to control. Stage 11 climbs the steep Cote de Laffrey, then it's bumpy all the way to the foot of the Col du Noyer. On the other side of the Noyer, there's more climbing before the descent into Gap. Part one of the basic two-part tactical plan for this stage would be to shed Contador's team-mates on the very steep Cote de Laffrey. Once he's on his own, let the attacks begin. This is what they did to him during the famous Paris-Nice stage to Fayence last year — it worked and he lost the race.

Then do the same on stage 12. Given that Contador has won two Paris-Nice stages at Mende, his rivals will need to shed him before the finishing climb. But the territory is ideal — Astana will not have the strength in depth to defend on the narrow, twisty roads of the Ardeche. Liquigas, Saxo Bank and RadioShack have the manpower to make life extremely difficult for Contador in these stages, and given what is coming next, they'd be wise to take advantage of it.

ADVANTAGE: Andy Schleck, Frank Schleck, Armstrong, Leipheimer, Nibali, Basso, Kreuziger

VULNERABLE: Contador, Wiggins, Sastre, Menchov, Evans, Vande Velde

Points competition

Who's going to win... the green jersey?

Hushovd McEwen

Freire Boonen

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