By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - All the stars are aligned as Bradley Wiggins gears up to become the first Briton to win the Tour de France, but he knows too well how cruel road cycling can be to even think past Saturday's prologue.
The suspended Alberto Contador will miss the race, fate took care of injured Andy Schleck's ambitions, the route is tailor-made for 'rouleurs' and Team Sky rider Wiggins has had the best possible preparation.
Road cycling, however, is an unpredictable affair and this year's Tour, which starts with a 6.4-kilometre prologue in Liege, Belgium, will be no exception.
Team Sky promised when they started competition two and a half years ago that they world put a Briton in yellow on the Champs Elysees within five years.
This year the team have even issued an official soundtrack for the Tour, a turbo-charged, steely electronic song called 'Go Far' by The Elite.
"I've been waiting for this moment for a long time and I'll do everything I can to win the Tour de France," Wiggins said.
However, all the hype surrounding the team counted for nothing last year as Wiggins crashed out early in the race.
WIGGINS V EVANS DUEL
Another factor in the June 30-July 22 race will be Contador's absence after the Spaniard was banned for failing a dope test during the 2010 race.
Last year's runner-up, Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, has pulled out with a broken bone in his pelvis after a terrible season, leaving the race open for a duel between Wiggins and defending champion Cadel Evans, who has been struggling for form this year.
"There is a little pressure from not having results but it's also a motivation. I have a good team around me and my body is capable of doing it," the Australian told Reuters.
Wiggins, on the other hand, is coming into the Tour having won the Paris-Nice and Criterium du Dauphine stage races.
The Belgium-born rider has prepared in Tenerife, Spain, to improve in the climbs and is expected to follow the pace in some demanding ascents on the route.
He will also be surrounded by an awe-inspiring team, with only two riders picked by team principal Dave Brailsford to support green jersey hopeful Mark Cavendish, whose main goal this year is the London Olympics.
Wiggins will rely on Vuelta runner-up Chris Froome, but also on Belarussian Kanstantsin Siutsou, who has three top 20 finishes in grand Tours, as well as Australians Michael Rogers and Richie Porte to support him in the mountains.
But with no pure climber set to take the race by storm, the Tour will likely be decided in the time trials as this year's edition features 101.4 kms against the clock, compared with 65.5 last year and 60.9 in 2009.
DECISIVE TIME TRIALS
Wiggins has been almost unbeatable in time trials this year.
"The Tour will not be won or lost in the mountains, it will sort out the contenders. But the Tour will certainly be won or lost in the time trials," said Evans of the BMC Racing team.
In that discipline, Russian Denis Menchov could have a strong card to play.
The Katusha rider, a two-times Vuelta champion who has also won the Giro d'Italia, will be ready to step in should Evans or Wiggins experience difficulties.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali, who can rely on a very strong Liquigas team featuring two-times Giro champion Ivan Basso and gifted Polish climber Sylwester Szmyd, as well as green jersey contender Peter Sagan of Slovakia.
Spaniard Samuel Sanchez, third overall in 2010, could hurt his rivals in the mountains but seems too weak in the time trials to hope for a podium finish.
Another contender is Giro champion Ryder Hesjedal of Canada but the often surprising Garmin-Sharp team could pull another hopeful from their hat, possibly Tom Danielson, while RadioShack Nissan will count on their old guard featuring Andreas Kloeden and Chris Horner to support Frank Schleck.
They will be without team manager Johan Bruyneel, who is sitting out the race after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) made doping allegations against him and his former protégé Lance Armstrong earlier this month.
American Levi Leipheimer, a decent climber and time trialist, will try to be in the mix for a podium finish but at 38, he could run out of steam earlier than the others.
Belgian Jurgen Van den Broeck and Dutchman Robert Gesink complete a shortlist of riders who can shine, while France's Thomas Voeckler, who has been struggling with a knee problem, looks highly unlikely to repeat last year's brilliant run.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Mark Meadows)
(c) Copyright Thomson Reuters 2012. Check for restrictions at: http://about.reuters.com/fulllegal.asp