TOUR DE FRANCE (5-27 July) BBC coverage: Daily text commentary, reports and gallery on the BBC Sport website and live audio commentary from BBC Radio 5 Live
Tour de France 2008 preview
Britain's Mark Cavendish and David Millar will be seeking to make a big impact when the 95th Tour de France gets under way in Brittany on Saturday.
Sprint specialist Cavendish has a great chance of becoming the first Briton to win a stage since Millar in 2002.
Millar is also in form and hopes to wear the yellow jersey early on.
But in the absence of 2007 champion Alberto Contador and his banned Astana team, last year's runner-up Cadel Evans is tipped to win the race on 27 July.
Cavendish, who has already won two world championship gold medals on the track, has at least three chances of winning a stage in the first week.
The British sprinter could finish no higher than 10th place during his inaugural Tour last year, but the 23-year-old has undoubtedly improved since then and made history last month by becoming the first Briton to win two stages at the Giro d'Italia.
Cavendish is unlikely to compete for the entirety of the three-week race because of the Olympics.
However, the Team Columbia rider has vowed to put all thoughts of winning gold in Beijing to one side in a bid to cross the line first in the opening flat stages before the peloton hits the Pyrenees.
"If it's a bunch sprint then I'm in with the best chance of anyone. I'll be disappointed if I don't win a stage," said Cavendish, who will team-up with Bradley Wiggins in the Madison - a two-man tag race - in Beijing in August.
"It doesn't matter what race it is, I've wanted to win races all my life - as long as I am racing, whether it is road, track, time trial etc, I'm happy. What matters is I want to cross that line first.
"Obviously this is the Tour and you need some luck but when you know you're the fastest then something has to turn out right."
Should Cavendish succeed in Nantes, Chateauroux or on the run into Toulouse then he will become only the seventh Briton to win a stage in the world's greatest bike race.
I'm nervous because I've based my whole year around it, but I'm also excited to get racing
Millar, who returned to the Tour in 2007 after a doping ban for using the blood booster EPO, will be competing again this year.
The Garmin rider will be hoping to make as impressive a start as he did on his 2000 Tour debut when he won the prologue and subsequently wore the yellow jersey for three days.
"For me personally the Tour has been my whole focus for this year. The Giro was a great race but it only served as preparation for this," said the 31-year-old Scot ahead of the gruelling 21-stage, 3,500km race.
"I'm nervous because I've based my whole year around it, but I'm also excited to get racing. Right now I feel 100%. I haven't felt this good in years.
"I feel I'm back to 100% now, which I haven't been in a while."
For the first time since 1967 there will be no prologue to begin the race, while time bonuses have also been abandoned.
According to Millar, the fact that there will not be a short individual time trial to decide who becomes race leader will make for a more open start.
"No prologue means it's going to open up the race to a lot of opportunists," he said.
"I'm not the favourite for the time trial but I'm hoping to finish ahead of most of the yellow jersey favourites, then we'll see in the first mountain stages.
Millar was the last Briton to win a Tour de France stage
"I'm confident. I'm in the best form I've been in years."
The changes could make for a more dramatic race, especially on the mountains, and is part of the organizers' plan to reinvent the Tour after a number of doping scandals.
Defending champion Contador will not defend his title after joining Team Astana, who were banned from the Tour after their involvement in scandals in the past two years, lead rider Alexandre Vinokourov removed from last year's Tour for blood doping.
Belgian sprint specialist Tom Boonen will be absent after testing positive for cocaine in an out-of-competition test.
Other big names missing who have besmirched the sport in recent years are Floyd Landis, Michael Rasmussen, Ivan Basso and Jan Ullrich.
Pat McQuaid, president of cycling's world governing body he International Cycling Union (ICU), believes this year's Tour will be the "cleanest on record", thanks to a biological passport scheme in which more than 850 riders have given a series of blood and urine samples while in training and during races to set the parameters for an individual biological profile.
But McQuaid concedes that even a scandal-free Tour will not be enough to dissuade those who doubt the sport's legitimacy.
"I don't think one clean Tour de France is going to change the image and the perception of cycling in a lot of people's minds," he said.
"It's going to take some time but it's certainly a big step on the way."
I'd rate myself as a pretty good chance to win
Australian Cadel Evans
This year's race will favour the riders who excel in the mountains as there will be only two time trial stages, on Stages Four and 20, compared with four mountain-top stage finishes.
Australian Evans has finished eighth (2005), fourth (2006) and second (2007) in the last three years, just 23 seconds separating him from a Tour win last year.
"Two years ago I wasn't sure of myself, if I could win the Tour, and now all the indications are there that I can," he said. "I'd rate myself as a pretty good chance to win."
Other riders expected to challenge for overall victory are Spaniards Alejandro Valverde - sixth last year - and Carlos Sastre, in the top five for five of the last six Tours, and Russian Denis Menchov, fifth in 2006.
"I am here really to fight for the podium," Valverde said. "But from the moment that you're involved in fighting for one of the top three spots, it's clear - why not first?"
Italian Damiano Cunego, another contender, has tattooed "I'm doping free" temporarily on his left arm, while his brash compatriot Riccardo Ricco could also threaten.
The race begins on Saturday with a 197.5 km (122.7 mile) hilly stage through Brittany from Brest to Plumelec.
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