The 2015 Tour de France begins on Saturday in Holland as cycling’s ‘big four’ start their hugely-anticipated fight for the most coveted Grand Tour of the season.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali will be up against 2013 winner Chris Froome, 2013 runner-up Nairo Quintana and two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador.
This elite quartet only face one another on very rare occasions, so to have each of them prepared for a tilt at the General Classification victory is a mouthwatering prospect.
As the reigning champion, Nibali arguably has the most to lose. The cycling community is under no illusions that his eight-minute win in the Tour last year was significantly enhanced by mid-Tour injuries to Froome and Contador.
Nibali has also been labelled as the weakest of the quartet, but having won all three Grand Tours this is a grossly unfair tag to pin on him.
Early indicators on a likely victor are swayed slightly by June’s week-long Criterium du Dauphine.
Froome came away as the stronger rider after being given a big scare by Tejay van Garderen, who is showing signs of delivering the big Tour performance his talent demands.
Nibali played a very tactical race, pushing no further than he wanted and attacking on a wet stage to briefly take the yellow jersey before losing it on another mountainous stage.
Contador and Quintana elected to race the Route du Sud and Contador, fresh from his Giro d’Italia win, narrowly beat the Colombian to boost his hopes of a Giro-Tour double.
If Contador did manage to win in Paris on the 26th July he would become the first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro-Tour brace.
For the mysterious Quintana, this is an opportunity to scare his closest rivals.
The diminutive Colombian has been training at home in the Andes and has picked his races very precisely. His massive accelerations are perhaps the strongest on the roster and he will be backed by his sneaky and astute Movistar team.
In many people’s opinion, Quintana is the favourite for the Tour with Froome a very close second.
Froome’s playground of the time-trial has been reduced, with the opening 13.8km TT and the team TT on stage nine the only chances to gain GC time against the clock.
His Dauphine win suggests he is in the ideal place to step up his Tour preparations and he won’t fear Quintana having left him for dead on the legendary Mont Ventoux ascent in 2013.
The first stage in Utrecht is too long to be called a prologue, but the tiny distance will still favour the specialist time-triallers with Tom Dumoulin hoping to become the first Dutchman for over 20 years to wear the maillot jaune.
A tricky stage two takes place along the coast of the Netherlands, with crosswinds set to tear the race apart.
Stage three will traverse the Mur-de-Huy with gradients of 19%, before a brutal day over the cobblestones on stage four will undoubtedly separate the GC contenders.
From there, the sprinters will contest three flat stages before the race ramps upwards on stage eight and the opening week finishes with the intriguing team time-trial.
The second week looks horrendous, with the first summit finish on the ‘Hors categorie’ Col de Soudet on stage ten starting a run of imperious Pyrenean stages that will provide the perfect battleground for the big four.
Stage 11 features six categorised climbs and will pass over the highest point of the race – the Col du Tourmalet – which tops out at 2,115m.
If those two Pyrenean beauties weren’t enough, the last of them features two category one climbs and a final slog up the Hors categorie climb to Plateau de Beille.
The race then takes a breather before rolling over a stage featured in the Dauphine, a testing trip to Pra Loup, with a technical descent deep into the stage that could spell carnage.
The riders will definitely know they’re in the Alps when they hit the next stage, with seven categorised climbs.
Stage 19 is the penultimate mountain stage, but features over 70km of climbing before the queen stage, which finishes atop the classic Alpe d’Huez.
ASO, the Tour organisers, are hoping the winning move will be made on the slopes of that famous mountain, and it would certainly be spectacular if those hopes came true.
A big British contingent will grace the Tour this year, with ten riders taking the start. Five of them ride for Team Sky – Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard, Peter Kennaugh and Luke Rowe – while Mark Cavendish, Alex Dowsett, Adam Yates, Simon Yates and Steve Cummings complete the line-up.
Realistically, Froome will be the Brit with the most to gain. His British team-mates will be riding in full support for him and, unless anything happens to their leader, they won’t chase stage wins.
Cavendish will naturally be a threat on the sprint stages and he needs three more victories to equal the great Bernard Hinault on 28 stage wins and move joint-second on the all-time list behind Eddy Merckx.
Look out for the Yates brothers too, who have been given the licence by their team Orica GreenEdge to hunt for stage wins. Simon also finished an impressive fifth in the Dauphine and could sneak into the top three young riders overall.
The yellow jersey is almost certainly an exclusive battle between the big four, but van Garderen has enough about him to keep pace with them – just how much of a challenge he puts up is unknown, but his Dauphine exploits mean he cannot be ruled out.
Nor can French duo Thibault Pinot and Romain Bardet, who are leading home hopes again and who will keep improving as France searches for a first home-grown Tour winner in 30 years.
The white jersey, given to the best young rider, will almost certainly go to Nairo Quintana, as will the King of the Mountains polka dot jersey if he cannot claim yellow.
The green jersey, given to the best sprinter, is going to be a fight between Peter Sagan and Alexander Kristoff, but with more points on offer for flat stage wins, don’t discount Cavendish.
A la Cartè
Some interesting little additions have been made to the Tour this year, with time bonuses of ten, six and four seconds available to the first three finishers on stages two to eight.
The 2015 Tour will also see the first African-based team compete. MTN Qhubeka have long been competing in and around the World Tour, but this is their first full season on the books and they will look to make a big impact with Eritrean rider Daniel Teklehaimanot going in search of a stage win and possibly the polka dot jersey.
But the sub-plots, for once, are just that as the big-four showdown finally happens.
Cycling fans have waited for years for a GC line-up as massive as this, and it has now come to pass.
Let’s hope the racing lives up to the hype.
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