Tour door opens for Hincapie, Landis, Leipheimer

STRASBOURG, France -- There's no Lance, and after Friday's doping upheaval, there's no Jan or Ivan, either.

With seven-time Lance Armstrong enjoying retirement, the 2006 Tour de France revved up Saturday without a clear candidate.

Pre-race favorites Jan Ullrich and Ivan Basso were among nine riders kicked out of the race for links to an alleged blood-doping ring in Spain.

With four of the Top 5 riders from last year's race suddenly out of the picture, this Tour is wide open.

"This Tour got totally turned upside down," said American Bobby Julich, third in the 1998 Tour. "If I was six years younger, I'd be licking my lips right now."

Along with Basso and Ullrich, second and third last year, respectively, also gone are last year's fourth-place rider Francisco Mancebo and fifth-place finisher Alexandre Vinokourov, whose Astana-Wurth team couldn't field a full squad when five of its nine riders were suspended.

The unprecedented decision Friday reshaped the 93rd Tour and turns this year's race into a potentially explosive, wide-open affair.

Leading the charge are three Americans who could well keep Armstrong's seven straight winning streak alive: Levi Leipheimer, Floyd Landis and George Hincapie.

All three rode alongside Armstrong at U.S. Postal Service and Discovery Channel. Any one of them is suddenly legitimate candidates to become the third American to win the Tour.

"I was thinking about it. There are only two guys left in the race who have beaten me in the Tour," said 32-year-old Leipheimer, sixth overall last year and fresh off winning the Tour warm-up race in France. "I definitely feel more pressure. And I think my team feels more pressure, as well. It's a big opportunity for us."

All are in their early 30s and all three have the overall skills and experience in both the climbs and time trials to fend off the remaining top European challengers.

Hincapie, 33, moves from his longtime support role behind Armstrong (he was the only rider be part of all seven of Lance's victories) to take his shot at being a protected team rider.

Hincapie just missed grabbing the maillot jaune in Saturday's prologue, finishing less than one second behind winner Thor Hushovd in a dramatic demonstration of his readiness.

"I've never been in the position they're in. They've led teams and been [high] in overall classification," Hincapie said in reference to the role of team captain. "This is my first year and I'm gonna try and see what I can do. But I'm ready, and I started the Tour well. I just hope I can continue to improve."

It's the unconventional Landis that generates the most excitement among the American hopes. The son of a Mennonite family in rural Pennsylvania, who grew up without television or electricity, Landis moved to San Diego in his late teens to chase his dream of racing bicycles.

A former mountain biker, the 30-year-old Landis helped Armstrong win from 2002-04 before striking out on his own in 2005 to finish ninth last year in his Tour debut as team leader at the Swiss Phonak team.

"Floyd knows what he wants. He's going for the win," said team owner Andy Rihs. "The Tour is his life now. Last year he came into new territory, but he's a fast learner. He's a very, very, very positive rider. The team is behind him. We believe he can win the Tour."

There are still a gaggle of Europeans who are pretenders for the Armstrong throne.

Much-hailed Alejandro Valverde (Caisse d'Epargne) is a strong climber with improving time trial credentials and could be a surprise in this new "cleansed" Tour.

Others to watch include last year's best climber Michael Rasmussen and his Rabobank teammate Denis Menchov, who was named the winner of last year's Tour of Spain after victor Roberto Heras tested positive for EPO.

Australian Cadel Evans, another ex-mountain biker who finished eighth last year in his Tour debut, is also generating heat as a possible winner.

The hasty departure of the big stars such as Basso, Ullrich and Vinokourov clips the wings of the bigger squads who built their entire nine-man rosters around protecting their sole team leader.

Now, everyone is waiting to see who will step up to try to control the race and prevent a dangerous breakaway from slipping away and gaining a big gap that could prove decisive.

That responsibility used to lie with Armstrong's Discovery Channel team. For seven years, the team carried the pressure of defending the yellow jersey.

With Le Boss hosting the ESPYS later this month, his former teammates can now play the attackers.

"We definitely won't take any responsibility for the race," said Discovery Channel team director Johan Bruyneel, the man who steered Armstrong to Tour glory. "I don't feel the obligation to win that we had in the past, and I know how difficult it is. I prefer that other riders on other teams have to deal with that. If we can take advantage of it, we will."

This year's Tour was supposed to be a match-up between Ullrich and Basso, but the hasty departure of crown princes leaves chances for the common man to over-run the palace.

Andrew Hood is a freelance writer based in Spain who has covered the Tour de France for ESPN.com since 1996.