Can you feel the excitement in the air?  That’s because tomorrow starts the 98th Tour de France, and it’s shaping up to be a great one!

If this is your first time paying attention to Le Tour, I’d recommend reading my ramblings from last year on the subject.  Also, this, this, this, this, and this.  Yeah, that’s an Oxford comma – what?

Also, have you signed up for Fantasy yet?  Karen named the group “Jeremy’s Favorite Subject”.

This year’s race is shaping up to climber’s battle, a rematch between Alberto Contador and Andy Schleck. Contador, the three time winner, is coming off a win in Italy’s Grand Tour, the Giro d’Italia.  No one has pulled off the Giro/Tour double since Marco Pantani in 1998, and he was fueled by EPO and cocaine by the kilo.

Speaking of drugs, Contador brings with him the spectre of drugs to this year’s race, as he awaits a ruling from one of the governing bodies over his doping case.  When put your body under the stress of endurance exercise, your red blood cell count drops and you recover from work slowly (I don’t know, I’m not that kind of doctor).  Last year, in the spring, Contador most likely took some clenbuterol to help cut some off-season weight.  Too soon after taking the banned substance, he probably took some of his own blood and stored it in the frigo.  Later, during last year’s Tour, he re-injected his stored blood, upping his red blood cell count and letting him recover faster.  He then got popped for a) trace amounts of clenbuterol in his blood, and b) plasticizer from his blood bag.

Contador then threw the entire Spanish cattle industry under the bus by saying he ate tainted Spanish beef, leading everyone to ask the same question.  There have now been a series of trials and appeals to determine if he doped (which he denies), and he should receive a final ruling in August.  So, there’s a chance that all of his race wins might be nullified in August… which isn’t all bad, because all of France hates him for (further) sullying the image of cycling.  If you’re looking for a heel, he’s your man.

Unfortunately, that heel is probably going to win.  He’s joined Team Saxo Bank, with master tactician Bjarne Riis.  It’s a pretty unstoppable combination.

About the only thing standing in his way in Andy Schleck, younger of the Luxembourgian Schleck brothers.  Andy and Franck look out for each other, almost to their detriment.  The big question is whether Andy is willing to spread his wings with out his Franck safety-blanket beside him.

There’s a lot of familiar faces back again this year.  You should be cheering for Jens Voigt, this is probably his last Tour.  Christian Vande Velde, a Chicago local, has managed to stay healthy so far this year.  Philippe Gilbert has won the hearts and minds of all of Belgium, and is hoping to notch his first Tour stage win.  Vinokourov is leading Astana this year, I’m hoping he wears his Vinokourov jersey:

There are three (3!) American teams to pay attention to, Garmin-Cervelo, HTC-Highroad, and BMC.  Tyler Farrar is still trying to notch a sprint win at the Tour, he’s starting to look like quite the bridesmaid for HTC’s Mark Cavendish.  HTC is also bringing newcomer Tejay Van Garderen, who is being heralded as the salvation of American cycling.  Look for discord in the French AG2R squad, as John Gadret and Nicolas Roche battle for team leadership.  I’m not really sure what to think of the four-headed-hydra of Radioshack this year, but I can tell you that Kloedi is one to cheer for.

After his win of the French national champion’s jersey, lets hope we see Sylvain Chavanel in yellow again this year, and I hope Thor keeps the wig.  I’m sure I’m not the only one disappointed that Johan Van Summeren didn’t make the Garmin squad:

I hope you’ll watch – NBC has bought out Versus, which should hopefully improve coverage.   Pete pointed me to the coverage listing here.  Hopefully this means Craig Hummer was finally fired…  I recommend the Team Time Trial on Sunday, always fun to watch!