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Three Swiss on Tour

Laurent Dufaux is one of three Swiss riders among this year's starting line-up Keystone

This year's Tour de France cycling race will see another low Swiss turnout, with just three of the country's top riders taking part.

Last year’s Tour also involved three Swiss cyclists – the smallest contingent from Switzerland in 20 years.

Currently engaged in their first year in the sport’s top division, Switzerland’s own Phonak team are aiming for a place on next year’s Tour.

In the meantime, though, Oscar Camenzind, Martin Elmiger, Alexandre Moos and the rest of the team are having to sit out cycling’s biggest event.

Last month’s Tour de Suisse winner Alex Zülle is also unable to compete because his German team Coast were controversially left out of the line-up by the Tour de France organisers.

Zberg, Dufaux and Bertogliati

In the absence of Zülle and the Phonak team, Beat Zberg, Laurent Dufaux and Rubens Bertogliati will be the three men flying the Swiss flag during the gruelling 20 stages of this year’s Tour, which begins on Saturday with a prologue in Luxembourg.

Dufaux has both good and bad memories of the Tour. In 1996 he enjoyed a stage victory, and remains the last Swiss to have done so. Two years later, though, Dufaux was caught up in the doping scandal that rocked the Tour.

Dufaux, along with Zülle, was banned from the sport for seven months after the Swiss riders and their Festina team-mates admitted to taking the blood-boosting substance EPO.

As he prepares for the latest edition of the race, however, Dufaux’s biggest concern has been in fighting off a nasty cold.

“I can’t say if I’ll be 100 per cent for Saturday’s prologue,” said the 33-year-old from Montreux after skipping last weekend’s Swiss championships. “But I will have got my legs back in shape.”

While another stage victory would mark an impressive achievement for Dufaux, his fellow Swiss on this year’s Tour are likely to play a more peripheral role.

Zberg is expected to concentrate on supporting Levi Leipheimer, the American leader of Dutch team Rabobank, while the 23-year-old Bertogliati will be happy just to acquire some valuable experience with his Italian team, Lampre-Daikin.

Armstrong favourite

As far as the main contenders are concerned, America’s Lance Armstrong is once again the big favourite with the 31-year-old Texan bidding to win his fourth straight Tour.

If he succeeds Armstrong will become the first American to win four consecutive Tours and only the fourth man ever to achieve the feat.

Armstrong’s chances this year have been further boosted by the absence of several big rivals.

Having endured a terrible start to the season, Germany’s Jan Ullrich will be the most notable absentee. The Team Telekom rider, who won the Tour in 1997 and came second in 1996, 1998, 2000 and 2001, has been out of action since damaging his knee during January training.

In May the German rider was convicted of drink-driving and then saw his misery compounded just days ago when he tested positive for amphetamines during a surprise out-of-competition control.

1998 Tour winner Marco Pantani will also be missing, due to lack of form, while Kazakhstan’s Alexander Vinokourov was forced to announce his withdrawal on Thursday after failing to recover from a nasty fall on the Tour de Suisse.

Although some observers now feel that the way has been cleared for another Armstrong victory, the American himself says he’s taking nothing for granted.

“Anybody can win. Well, not anybody – but almost anybody,” Armstrong told reporters in Luxembourg on Thursday. “There could be somebody better, there could be 10 people better, and I know that.”

Armstrong could face some tough competition from the Spanish teams and Once, and from former team mates Tyler Hamilton (now riding with Tiscali) and Leipheimer, but unfortunately the American champion is unlikely to be losing too much sleep over this year’s Swiss trio.

by Mark Ledsom with agencies

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR