Paris For a second year running, the Tour de France has no defending champion and no star. More than ever, the showcase event desperately needs a clean race following the recent doping scandals that have brought the 105-year institution to its knees.
Whether the battered Tour can get up off the canvas is as uncertain as picking the favorite, given that 2007 champ Alberto Contador, mountain expert Michael Rasmussen and former favorite Ivan Basso are not taking part.
Tour organizers hope an intense cleanup operation will help avoid a major doping scandal during the July 5-27 race.
Change in mentality
"There is a real change in mentality within the teams, the riders, to ensure that cycling recovers its credibility," Tour race director Christian Prudhomme told The Associated Press in an interview. "Cycling is judged over three weeks in July. I hope everyone has this in mind. Without doubt, it's an important year for the image of cycling."
Australia's Cadel Evans, runner-up last year, and Alejandro Valverde of Spain, winner of the prestigious pre-Tour tuneup at the Dauphine Libere earlier this month, will be eyeing the famed yellow jersey.
But neither has star power.
"Without the favorites from other years, it's going to put a lot more pressure and stress on those guys for sure," Team CSC sprinter Stuart O'Grady, a 34-year-old Australian who has missed only one Tour since 1997, told The Associated Press by telephone on Friday.
In a development that could overshadow a star-starved race, cycling's governing body, the UCI, will not help with doping tests at the Tour because of a widening rift in the sport.
The UCI and organizers of cycling's three big events - the Tour, Vuelta and Giro - have locked horns for years about how the sport should be governed.
Cycling feud escalates
The feud reached a new height in March, when the Tour's organizer, the Amaury Sport Organization, ran the Paris-Nice race under its own laws and the UCI responded by suspending the French cycling federation for backing the ASO.
UCI president Pat McQuaid suspects ASO of harboring desires to establish a private cycling league. Prudhomme denies this. But the family owned ASO, which also owns the Tour of Burkina Faso, is expanding its empire overseas. It recently signed a marketing agreement with Tour of California owners Anschutz Entertainment Group.
The Tour seems far removed from the glory days between 1999 and 2005 when it had thrilling rivalries between seven-time champion Lance Armstrong and his challengers: 1997 winner Jan Ullrich, 1998 champ Marco Pantani and Basso, the 2005 runner-up.
Following Armstrong's retirement three years ago, the path was cleared for a new star to emerge.
But the fight against doping took center stage. Ullrich and Basso were disgraced by drug investigations.