The world of cycling will be focused on Dusseldorf on Saturday as the peloton readies itself for three weeks of brilliant bike racing in the form of the 104th Tour de France.
Following the short time-trial through the capital of North Rhine-Westphalia, the opening days of the race see the 198 riders meander through Germany, Belgium, France and Luxembourg before heading to La Planche des Belles Filles for the first summit finish on stage five.
As is traditional in odd years, the Pyrenees and Alps feature in the second and third weeks respectively, before what looks set to be a crucial time-trial in Marseille on the penultimate day.
Although the Col du Tourmalet, Col d’Aubisque and Mont Ventoux are all missing there are welcome returns for the Cols de Croix de Fer and Galibier. Christian Prudohomme and his team seem to have favoured shorter, sharper stages packed with climbing, with the highlight undoubtedly stage 18, which sees the peloton climb the Col de Vars, before finishing on the summit of the Col d’Izoard.
So just who is in with a shout of standing atop of the podium on the Champs Elysees come July 23?
Three-time champion Chris Froome is the 6/5 favourite but doubts linger over his form. The 32-year-old and his Sky team have dominated in recent years but he himself has remained coy about his chances and may need to lean on those around him in the opening week.
In fact, Froome has even gone as far as suggesting that his former colleague, Richie Porte (9/5) of BMC, is the man to watch. Since leaving Sky for the Swiss outfit at the start of 2016, the Australian has grown into the role of team leader and having won the Tour de Romandie and shown up well in both Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphine, looks a real threat if he stays focused.
Movistar’s Nairo Quintana (13/2) will also be up there and has the advantage of having team-mate Alejandro Valverde on hand to distract his rivals. The lack of time-trialling should suite him having again lost the Giro d’Italia against the clock but the difficulty of racing both the Giro and the Tour could prove too much of a burden, meaning the King of the Mountains jersey (28/1) may well be his salvation.
Of the main contenders, the hardest to work out is Alberto Contador (14/1). At 34, he will go off looking to win his third Tour in what could be his final Grande Boucle. The Trek-Segafredo man enjoyed a decent spring but is no longer the beast that dominated the peloton in his younger years and will need to ride a very canny race if he is to be in the reckoning come the final week.
Looking down the field and there are plenty of others who, if they make the right moves, could well be in contention for at least the podium.
Fabio Aru of Astana, who is 11/4 for the podium, is an interesting case, having won the 2015 Vuelta a Espana but only managing 13th in last year’s Tour. The knee injury that kept him out of the Giro remains a worry and could open the door for team-mate Jakob Fuglsang.
The Dane cemented his status as a solid stage racer by winning the Dauphine and although he may lack the x-factor in the high mountains, could improve on the seventh place he achieved in 2013, with a top three finish priced at 3/1.
Orica-Scott’s Simon Yates could also go well, with the Brit especially keen to impress having missed out in 2016 due to a clerical error regarding his asthma medication. His twin brother Adam took the white jersey and his own sixth place at last year’s Vuelta suggests he too could win the young rider classification at 7/5, although much could depend on team-mate Esteban Chaves’ form.
Of course home hopes will be as high as ever and there are potential candidates for a first French win since Bernard Hinault in 1986. AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet has finished in the top 10 in each of the last three years, most notably coming home second 12 months ago. The 26-year-old won stages in both 2015 and 2016 and always seems to time his form for July.
He is 16/5 for the top three, while FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot also has a podium finish under his belt and can match anyone on his day. However, his decision to race the Giro, where he finished fourth, could hinder him and he may target the King of the Mountains, where he is the 59/20 favourite.
As for the green jersey, Bora-Hansgrohe’s Peter Sagan is hard to look past. The Slovak can do it all and his consistency means he is rightly the 4/9 odds on favourite to win a sixth straight points crown.
Elsewhere and 2011 points winner Mark Cavendish (12/1) of Dimension Data heads into the race aiming to secure the five stages he needs to match Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34, while Quick-Step Floors Marcel Kittel (49/20) is a man with a point to prove. A single win last year was undoubtedly a disappointment and although the green jersey may again be too much, seven wins already in 2017 suggests he could at least show himself to be the fastest man in the sport.
Those looking for an early bet might favour Tony Martin in the opening time-trial. The course looks perfect for the Katusha-Alpecin man and at 31/20 he will be aiming to dominate in his homeland.
Another man looking good for stage wins is the brilliant Steve Cummings, who did the double at last week’s UK championships and when not helping out Cavendish, will be given his head to try and add to his success in both 2015 and 2016.
Finally and it seems cruel not to at least mention Thomas Voeckler. The now 38-year-old will be riding the final race of his career in which he has claimed four stage wins, while he also wore yellow in both 2004 and 2011 and won the mountains classification in 2012. He will be desperate for a stage win but will not shirk the responsibility of leading his Direct Energie team.
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