The 2016 Tour de France rolls off today as the 198 riders begin their 3,535km dash around France with a poignant first stage that finishes in Utah Beach to commemorate the D-Day landings of World War Two.
The battle for the first yellow jersey is likely to be between Marcel Kittel, Andre Greipel and Mark Cavendish, but it is the fight to wear the maillot jaune in Paris on July 24 that is the most appealing.
This Tour looks set to be a tense shake-up between reigning Tour champion Chris Froome and in-form Colombian climber Nairo Quintana.
The past few editions of ‘le Tour’ have been ideal for Froome. His Tour victories of 2013 and 2015 combined just the right amount of time-trialling and high mountain passes, although Quintana very nearly snatched victory last season with an astounding attack on the famous Alpe d’Huez.
This year, Quintana will be licking his lips with a more mountainous route and two climber-centric time trials providing plenty of opportunity to put time into his rivals.
Quintana has finished second to Froome in each of the British rider’s wins but this year he looks the stronger of the two.
The Movistar rider has won three stage races this season already, triumphing in the Route du Sud, Tour de Romandie and the Volta a Catalunya.
Meanwhile, Froome is peaking at just the right time as he looks to win a third Tour and maintain his form for a tilt at the gold medal in the Olympic road race at Rio 2016.
The Kenya-born Brit took victory in the most prestigious warm-up for the Tour de France, the Criterium du Dauphine.
While the clash between Froome and Quintana will dominate the headlines, those writing off two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador do so at their peril.
The Spaniard has quietly gone about his business this season with the goal of timing his form for the Tour, and with his explosive climbing style and unparalleled ability in uphill time-trials he will undoubtedly be on Froome and Quintana’s watchlist.
There is also an intriguing dynamic at Astana where 2016 Giro d’Italia winner Vincenzo Nibali will be riding in support of 2015 Vuelta a Espana victor Fabio Aru.
The Italians are known to dislike one another but they will be forced to help each other as Astana look to pull a tactical blindfold over their rivals.
Nibali will be gunning for a fast start and if he gets an early lead it will afford Astana the luxury of masking which rider is their preferred leader – giving their rivals two riders to mark instead of one.
Best of the rest
There is no doubting Richie Porte’s quality, but he has a worrying tendency to blow up in the latter stages of a Grand Tour.
He has consistently underperformed on the biggest stage and his exit from Team Sky was an understandable decision given he had been Froome’s wingman and deputy and simply failed to deliver.
The situation at his new team, BMC, is similar to that of Astana’s, as American rider Tejay van Garderen is also in contention for the yellow jersey.
The lanky time-trial specialist comes to the 2016 Tour with unfinished business as illness in last season’s edition cruelly robbed him of a podium spot as he was forced to abandon the race from third place on stage 17.
BMC can afford to place Porte as their leader and, if he’s strong enough, he will most likely keep that status to the end of the race. If he does run out of legs in the third week, van Garderen will naturally be high in the General Classification and the team can then support him instead.
There is also a strong feeling in France that Thibault Pinot or Romain Bardet could have a Tour to remember. Bardet in particular has been in excellent form this season and his demon descending abilities could be a factor on some hairy descents lined up for this Tour.
Pinot has long struggled with time-trialling and descending but the uphill stages against the clock will be more to his liking and he will always be a threat on the major mountain stages.
The other jerseys
Sadly, if Peter Sagan doesn’t win the green jersey it will only be through an accident. The world champion is supreme at picking up intermediate sprint points on hilly stages and he has won the last four green jerseys.
The sprinters will take the majority of the flat stage wins, with Sagan usually in the top five, but the Slovakian’s ability to survive in breakaways and win uphill sprints makes him the overwhelming favourite to take five in a row.
Marcel Kittel is tipped to win the most stages this year, but he will be challenged by fellow German Andre Greipel and British rider Mark Cavendish.
Kittel has been in scintillating form during 2016, often winning stages by several bike lengths and, if his Etixx Quick-Step team can provide a good lead-out train, he will again be untouchable.
The King of the Mountains classification is likely to be won by a GC contender, just as Froome did last year.
Failing that, a rider who is consistently in the breakaways can mop up points for being the first man over the summit. However, with the majority of points weighted for summit finishes, a pure climber is more likely to win the polka dot jersey.
The white jersey, given to the highest-placed rider under 25, is the most open for years after Quintana recently turned 26, but expect the winner to come from this trio of Warren Barguil, British rider Adam Yates or Louis Meintjes.
The 2016 Tour is full of mountains and consequently the warm-up races have been too, most noticeably with a focus on uphill time-trials.
Stage 12 stands out as the best stage in the race as the riders ascend the legendary Mont Ventoux on Bastille Day.
Froome has also earmarked this as the most attractive stage and given he beat Quintana convincingly on Ventoux in 2013 he will fancy his chances once more.
The back end of the Tour is usually slanted upwards and this edition is no different. Stages 17, 18, 19 and 20 are Alpine monsters, traversing Switzerland and then back into France.
With 54km of time-trialling to be done, including one uphill and the other with two tricky climbs, time gaps will quickly appear in the GC race.
There is a ‘magnificent seven’ of British riders in this year’s Tour. Team Sky boast four of those with Froome, Geraint Thomas, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe.
Team Dimension Data have two in the shape of Mark Cavendish and Steven Cummings, while the relatively unknown sprinter Daniel McLay makes his Tour debut for the Fortuneo-Vital Concept squad.
As always there is plenty to look out for in the Tour this year. There are races within the race, races within each classification and there will be plenty of cat and mouse too.
It will be hard to take your eyes off the GC battle though. Froome, Quintana and Contador will be cutting shapes on some brutal mountain passes and it could come down to who handles the time-trials better than the others.
But there is a lingering feeling when looking over the parcours that this could well be Nairo Quintana’s year. On the Alpe d’Huez last season he will have sensed a weakness in Froome and the Colombian’s sparkling form this season gives him his best shot yet at climbing into yellow.
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