LIEGE, Belgium — Cadel Evans thinks one Tour de France title will make it easier to win another one. And the Australian cyclist is ready to add that second championship right now.
Evans opens his title defense when the 99th edition of cycling’s marquee race begins Saturday with a quick, 4-mile prologue in Liege, Belgium — an individual time trial expected to be dominated by specialists such as Fabien Cancellara of Switzerland and Tony Martin of Germany, or contender Bradley Wiggins of Britain.
The beginning of the Tour offers the cycling world a welcome return to racing after the sport’s doping ghosts returned this month, with charges by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency that Lance Armstrong used performance-enhancing drugs en route to his seven Tour victories. He denies doping and notes he has never failed a drug test.
For a race covering 2,100 miles over three weeks, the prologue is just the very beginning for the rider who will cycle down Paris’ Champs-Elysees in the yellow jersey on July 22 — but it could provide an early indication about who won’t be in front at the end. Evans was already playing down expectations about how he might fare in it.
“It starts tomorrow on a stage that isn’t so suited to me,” the BMC team leader said Friday. “But from here on in, it’s all systems go, and I’m looking forward to getting another Tour started.”
Evans says he has a “similar mentality” to his winning approach last year. But this year’s route goes heavier on time trials — with more than 60 miles total in individual races against the clock — and lighter on steep mountain climbs than the most recent Tours.
“Knowing that we have already won one, it makes it quite a little bit easier,” Evans said. “When you’ve won one — in the bag — it’s there. … It makes it a whole lot easier. You don’t have this question of doubt: ‘Maybe I can win it, maybe I can’t?’ We know we can.”
He acknowledged that race connoisseurs are predicting a two-man showdown between Evans and Wiggins, a three-time Olympic track gold medalist who has converted to road races and worked hard to improve in the mountains that are often crucial to winning the Tour.
“They tell me that Wiggins is the man to beat, so they say, but we’ll see it on the roads,” Evans said. “Three weeks on the road is a long time, and a lot can happen.”
Wiggins is off to a terrific start this season, winning the Criterium du Dauphine, the Tour de Romandie and Paris-Nice stage races this year. Evans, by comparison, admitted he has been off to a “bit of a quiet start” to 2012, with just one victory in the three-stage Criterium International — but is progressing and hopes to peak for the Tour.
Wiggins wants to become the first Briton to reach the Tour podium, and possibly take home yellow — and with the London Olympics ahead next month, is doubly motivated.
“I can’t wait to get down that ramp and put down into practice all these months of training,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this good: All this stuff we’ve been doing this week suggests that I am in the form of my life.”
Wiggins said he’s sensed through social media how many fans back in Britain are behind him.
“In England … every child’s dream is to lift the FA Cup at Wembley or whatever,” Wiggins said. “This is my Wembley.”
The crop of likely contenders has thinned in recent months. Alberto Contador was suspended from racing until August and stripped of his 2010 Tour title for doping in that race. Andy Schleck — who inherited the Spaniard’s title after placing second that year — is out with a spinal injury.
International Cycling Union president Pat McQuaid expressed concern that the absence of aggressive mountain climbers like Contador and Schleck might deprive the Tour of some drama.
“By all accounts, it should probably pan down to a race between two individuals: Cadel Evans and Bradley Wiggins,” McQuaid said. “They’re both very similar type of individuals, which could make it a little bit uninteresting because they’re both slightly conservative in the mountains, and they both depend on their time trial abilities to win the race.”
“So it could be a methodical race, unfortunately,” he told The Associated Press.
The three uphill finishes are relatively few by recent Tour standards. The first comes on the eastern Vosges mountains in Stage 7, with a steep ride up the Planche de Belles Filles — followed by rides up to ski stations: La Toussuire in the Alps in Stage 11, and Peyragudes in the Pyrenees in Stage 17.
Outside threats for overall victory include Dutch rider Robert Gesink, the winner of the Tour of California this year, American veteran Levi Leipheimer — solid in both time trials and the mountains — and Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali, the winner of the 2010 Spanish Vuelta who is back at the Tour for the first time since 2009.
After three days in Belgium, the race cuts from the English Channel across northern France to the Vosges, down to the Alps, down to the nudist-beach town of Cap d’Agde on the Mediterranean Sea, then into the Pyrenees, followed by a pivotal time trial in Stage 19 — on the eve of the finish in Paris.
“The basics of the race remain the same: You’ve got to get to Paris quicker than everyone else,” Evans said. “Winning one Tour was great. Winning two must be better, right?”