Discovery Channel manager, Johan Bruyneel, has announced the names of the 11 men he will use to select the final 9-man squad for the 2005 Tour de France from July 2-24.

The riders in the loop to join Armstrong are Jose Azevedo, Manuel Beltran, George Hincapie, Leif Hoste, Benoit Joachim, Benjamin Noval, Pavel Padrnos, Yaroslav Popovych, Chechu Rubiera, and Paolo Savoldelli. Viatcheslav Ekimov isn’t in contention following a serious crash last week while out training with Armstrong.

Ekimov has since returned to Russia and needs to wear a back brace for the foreseeable future to stabilise the injury. Bruyneel commented on the loss of Ekimov for the next few months, including the Tour de France.

"Losing a guy like Eki is a big loss," said Bruyneel in regards to starting the Tour without the Russian powerhouse. "It will difficult or even impossible to replace him because of his qualities, his experience and his position on the team and the way he knows the race and knows the team. He’s been our captain on the road. We won’t be able to find a substitute for him."

With the team ready to start its first ever Tour of Italy on Saturday, Bruyneel says he believes if all goes well, team leader Paolo Savoldelli can reach the podium in Milan on May 29.

"To me, there are three clear favorites with Simoni and Cunego on one side and Basso on the other side," he said. "They are the biggest favourites. And you can see that both Lampre and CSC have assembled strong teams that are ready to go for it, control the race, protect their leader and work if they have to work.

“To me, those are the three favorites. But just behind them, I put Paolo in the first spot of the next group."

Despite only a top 30 finish last weekend at the Tour of Romandie, Bruyneel feels Savoldelli is ready to ride well in his favourite race. "I don’t take Romandie has a measurement to where he is right now. He had a good prologue, a difficult first mountain day then on the second mountain day, he didn’t push it too hard.

“For Paolo, normally he gets better during a stage race and I expect him to be better in the last week. He’s already won the race (2002) and finished second (1999) and this is one of his big objectives this year. He has had a very, very good lead up to the Giro - turning in some good races and good training blocks. I think he’s ready for it."

When asked about the supporting cast around Savoldelli - a relatively inexperienced group for a Grand Tour - Bruyneel said they will try and work off of Lampre and CSC.

"Those two teams are the two strongest, no doubt. We are definitely not as strong as them, but Paolo can be on the podium if everything works out fine. He’s not the clear favourite and thus we don’t need a team to perform for a clear favorite.

"He needs guys around him to protect him and be around him in the mountains and then it’s up to him to be with the best. He has great experience and knows what he needs to do to be ready. He’s not the type to get nervous and crack in certain circumstances. I’m confident he can be there."