PORTO-VECCHIO, Corsica — Soccer’s World Cup. Football’s Vince Lombardi Trophy. Hockey’s Stanley Cup.
And, of course, the yellow jersey.
No list of the most famous trophies in sports can be complete if it doesn’t include that gaudy shirt from the Tour de France — and British speedster Mark Cavendish aims to get his hands on his first one this year.
Over the next three weeks, 21 of them will be distributed at the 100th Tour. None will be more important than the last one — worn by the overall winner on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on July 21: Many pundits believe that will be either Britain’s Chris Froome or two-time Tour champion Alberto Contador of Spain.
But it would be a mistake to reduce the Tour to a two-rider race. Multiple heartbreaks, crashes and other dramas await over the meandering 2,110-mile trek along wind-swept seasides, through flat plains and the Alps and Pyrenees mountain ranges, and even to a medieval island citadel.
The first story could be written by Cavendish: the “Manx Missile” is a favorite to win the mostly flat Stage 1 (132.4 miles) from Porto-Vecchio to Bastia in the
race debut on the French Mediterranean island of Corsica on Saturday.
The Briton, whose muscle, timing and accelerations make him the finest sprinter of his generation, has already won other coveted prizes in his sport. In 2011, he won both the green jersey given to the best Tour sprinter and the rainbow-striped jersey awarded to cycling’s road-race world champion.
The yellow jersey, however, has eluded his grasp.
“It’s not just one of the most iconic symbols in cycling, it’s one of the most iconic symbols in the world of sport,” Cavendish said. “To be able to wear that for at least a day in your life, it’s a thing to make any rider’s career. It’s a thing you dream about when you’re a child. It would be a beautiful thing.”
Cycling could use some beautiful things. This is the first Tour since Lance Armstrong was stripped of his record seven victories for doping, which he finally acknowledged on U.S. television after years of denials that were exposed as lies by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency.
Despite millions spent on fighting drug use in the peloton, blasts from cycling’s checkered past keep on coming: Ahead of this race, French media reported that a Senate investigation into the effectiveness of doping controls pieced together evidence that a urine sample provided by long-beloved French rider Laurent Jalabert contained EPO, cycling’s designer drug, at the Tour of 1998.
Tour organizers will be hoping the racing drama of the next three weeks will push such miseries to the background.
In the traditional pre-race presentation, the 22 teams took to the stage one after the other Thursday in Porto-Vecchio, with its idyllic mountain backdrop on France’s “isle of beauty.” Hundreds of fans clapped politely, as white yachts stuck up like teeth from the shimmering blue Mediterranean.
Contador predicts an action-packed race in this comeback year for him. The 30-year-old Spaniard was stripped of his 2010 Tour title and missed out last year over a doping ban. He could be the biggest danger for Froome. Both riders excel in mountain climbs that feature heavily this year. But Contador said there would be more to this Tour than simply their rivalry.
“This year won’t just be the story of two riders; we’ll have more actors in this film,” he said. “This year will see more action than in past years.”
Of Froome, he said: “I would have no motivation to be here if I thought I couldn’t beat him.”
Among longer-shot contenders are 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans of Australia — though at 36, his legs aren’t the freshest — and his young BMC teammate Tejay Van Garderen, a 24-year-old American who was born in Tacoma, plus Spaniards Alejandro Valverde of Movistar and Joaquim Rodriguez of Katusha.
Van Garderen, a powerful climber who was fifth overall in last year’s Tour de France, hopes to win the showcase race one day.
“Absolutely,” he said. “It’s been a dream of mine since I was 10 years old.”
Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 Tour winner and a Sky teammate of Froome, is injured and sitting out this year. Last year, Froome was more impressive than Wiggins in the mountains, but that race was more heavily weighted to time trials — Wiggins’ specialty — than in this year’s edition.
5 things to know about THE Tour de France
PORTO VECCHIO, Corsica — The Tour de France begins Saturday. Five things to know:
1. THE TOUR TURNS 100: The Tour, which began in 1903, celebrates its 100th edition this year. (The race wasn’t held for a total of 11 years during and around the time of the two world wars.) This edition takes riders over 2,110 miles before the July 21 finish in Paris. The festivities begin Saturday in Corsica with an airborne display by military stunt pilots before the 198 competitors set off from Porto Vecchio to Bastia for a mostly flat stage that’s likely to end with a bunch-sprint finish. That’s if breakaway riders don’t make their mark first.
2. CORSICAN DRUTHERS: The race is visiting Corsica for the first time. The rugged Mediterranean island is known as France’s “isle of beauty” and boasts sandy beaches, white cliffs, jagged ochre-colored rock formations and forests of wild olive trees. Politically, Corsica has a nationalist streak: Low-level violence targeting symbols of the French state has been going on for years, often carried out at night — apparently to avoid casualties.
3. THE STAGE 1 FAVORITES: Speedster Mark Cavendish — a native of Britain’s Isle of Man who has been dubbed “The Manx Missile” — is a favorite to win the 132.4-mile stage. Rivals include Germans Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel, Slovakia’s Peter Sagan and Matt Goss of Australia. Look for overall title contenders such as Britain’s Chris Froome and Alberto Contador of Spain to try to stay out of trouble in what could shape up to be a frenzied finish.
4. IS THE TOUR FINALLY CLEAN?: That’s anybody’s guess. Cycling officials say they have one of the most rigorous anti-doping programs in professional sports, including a biological passport system that monitors changes in riders’ blood and a whereabouts system to keep tabs on riders in season and out. “Cycling is the most rigorously tested sport in the world,” Garmin-Sharp manager Jonathan Vaughters said Friday. “We have our problems, but we work to solve them.”
5. LANCE LURKING: This is the first Tour since Lance Armstrong was stripped of his record seven victories for doping. Tour tongues wagged Friday after Le Monde newspaper published an interview with the Texan — persona non grata to many in Corsica — in which he said he still considers himself the champion from 1999 to 2005, a time when he said no one could have won without doping. Jean-Rene Bernaudeau, the Europcar team manager, quipped: “Pretty nice from a guy who incarnates the decade that we have to forget to lecture us. ... He better not hassle us too much. It’s horrible to hear that someone who stole glory, victories and money from us can now say, ‘You who were subjected to it, you, too, were like me.’ ”The Associated Press