With the WorldTour’s elite fast men bidding to pull on the prestigious maillot jaune, it is set to be a tense first stage – but the battle for the top step of the final podium in Paris will be fiercer still.
Defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) and Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo), currently ranked number one in the world, start as favourites.
But Criterium du Dauphine winner Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp) has proved the two can be beaten, and a host of other contenders – Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) will certainly be hoping that is the case.
Now, read on for our views on the men bidding to top the general classification of the 101st Tour de France.
[part title="Alberto Contador (Tinkoff-Saxo)"]
El Pistolero has stormed back into form this season, marching to the top of the world rankings in supreme style with a string of hugely impressive performances. He is yet to finish lower than second overall in any stage race this season, and has claimed victories at Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Basque Country.
At the former, he was at his climbing best, blasting to victory atop the Guardiagrele, while he took the latter after some relentless attacking – before countering Valverde’s attempts to respond for the rest of the week.
At the Dauphine he may have been guilty of marking the wrong man on the final climb, costing him the yellow jersey, but he still showed is one of the only riders capable of matching Chris Froome. Stage two proved as much – though Froome took the stage, Contador had matched him move for move on the Col du Beal.
He also boasts a phenomenally strong squad – albeit one now missing Roman Kreuziger, while the Czech’s biological passport is investigated. Nicolas Roche and Michael Rogers are more than capable of protecting Contador in the mountains and Contador more than capable of bettering Froome in the race for the yellow jersey.
[part title="Chris Froome (Team Sky)"]
Defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) remains the man to beat this year as Team Sky bid for a third consecutive Tour de France win. The Kenyan-born Brit gave a stunning reminder of the power and climbing prowess which propelled him to victory last season when he blasted to victory on stage two of the Criterium du Dauphine.
Backed by a strong team, who will be alongside him for the Tour too with the addition of road captain Bernie Eisel, Froome left his GC rivals trailing in his wake, with the exception of Alberto Contador, to take the stage and extend his overall lead.
The crash which put paid to his overall hopes, however, was reminiscent of the season he has had to date – stunning form at the Tour of Oman and Tour de Romandie have been intertwined with the injuries which ruled him out of Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Tirreno-Adriatico.
If he can recapture the form he showed at the start of the Dauphine, on the Col du Beal, however, and his team repay the faith showed in them – faith which has led to the omissions of British champion Peter Kennaugh and 2012 champion Sir Bradley Wiggins – then Froome could well be unstoppable again.
[part title="Alejandro Valverde (Movistar)"]
Alejandro Valverde was unlucky in 2013 to suffer a hugely ill-timed puncture on stage 13, when he was well-placed overall, as Alberto Contador and his team-mates split the bunch with aggressive riding into the crosswinds. Caught behind it, Valverde saw his overall ambitions evaporate.
Nevertheless, having recovered to take a top-ten place last year, Valverde has started this season in good form and is another rider looking to be back to his best. Eight race wins – including being crowned Spanish time trial champion – and the overall title at the Ruta del Sol certainly stand him in good stead.
In the Basque Country he was the only rider close to matching Contador over the climbs before attacking him relentlessly from there on as he looked to shut down his compatriot’s overall lead. Only a disappointing time trial denied him the podium there, but his national title shows he is back in form against the clock.
Whether he can match Contador and Froome at the Tour, however, remains to be seen. Another podium place at the Route du Sud suggests he is in good shape to be on the steps in Paris – but he may need a large slice of luck if it is to be anything other than third.
[part title="Vincenzo Nibali (Astana)"]
Third in 2012, Giro champion and Vuelta runner-up in 2013, there was great excitement when Vincenzo Nibali announced he would be returning to the Tour this season. However, the highs of last season have – so far – failed to be repeated.
The Shark has repeatedly shown flashes of his best form, attacking regularly alongside team-mate Jakob Fuglsang at Paris-Nice in what could be an indication of their Tour de France tactics. He was also fifth at the Tour de Romandie and seventh at the Criterium du Dauphine.
However, those flashes of form have failed to materialise into an overall challenge this season – the way Froome and Contador distanced him on stage two of the Dauphine will no doubt be of concern.
Nevertheless, Nibali will enjoy the backing of a strong team with Fuglsang and Michele Scarponi alongside him. And, having beaten a strong field to take the title of Italian road race champion, Nibali might just be coming into form at the perfect time.
[part title="Jurgen van den Broeck (Lotto-Belisol)"]
The nearly man of years gone by, Jurgen van den Broeck’s road to recovery since suffering a season-ending crash at last year’s Tour has been an arduous one.
However, the Lotto-Belisol man – fourth in 2010 and 2012 – gave a reminder of why he is considered a contender for the Tour podium with a great Dauphine, ultimately finishing third overall.
The Belgian consistently stuck with the big contenders, making the spit when Froome lit up the race on the Col du Beal. He was then fifth on stage eight, joining the strong race-winning break at the foot of the final climb.
His team is built more for Andre Greipel’s sprint, but the likes of hard man Adam Hansen will provide valuable support – and van den Broeck proved he is capable of going it alone when he needs to as well.
After his painful exit from last year’s race, van den Broeck will be keen for better luck this time out. But if he gets it, an overdue place on the podium is certainly not beyond the realms of possibility.
[part title="Andrew Talansky (Garmin-Sharp)"]
Young American Andrew Talansky went from top-ten contender to potential dark horse with his Criterium du Dauphine success.
Capable of challenging overall in the prestigious one-week races – he was second at the 2012 Tour de Romandie and 2013 Paris-Nice – the American would not be denied a third time as he powered away from the yellow jersey group on the final stage.
His steady season, which has included solid showings on the likes of Alp, Vallter 2000 and the Col du Beal shows he is in good nick when it comes to climbing, and alongside compatriot Tejay van Garderen he is certainly a contender for the white jersey.
He will certainly be a marked man now, though, after Alberto Contador allowed him to slip from his grasp at the Dauphine. Tenth last year, to challenge overall would take some doing but the white jersey is the very least he could achieve. And having pulled on one yellow jersey already, he has shown he has every right to be considered a maillot jaune contender too.
[part title="Best of the rest"]
There may be no Nairo Quintana (Movistar), and 2012 champion Sir Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky) also misses out, but the startlist for the 101st Tour de France is as strong as ever for the prestigious race.
It could well become a two-horse race between Alberto Contador and Chris Froome, as many are expecting, but if they slip up there are plenty of riders keen for at least the top ten, if not better.
World champion Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida) won the Tour de Suisse to show he is in good form, and at the very least he will be after a repeat of his stage wins from last year.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC Racing) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale) will be flying the flag for the young riders, meanwhile.
Bauke Mollema (Belkin) showed last year he can challenge overall too, and looked in good shape at the Tour de Suisse while plenty of Pro Continental riders will challenge for a top ten place.
Daniel Navarro (Cofidis) showed just how much the gap is narrowing between the WorldTour riders and those from the second-tier with his top-ten placing last year, while Leopold Konig (Team NetApp-Endura) will be keen to repeat the form he showed at the Vuelta.
Of all the Pro Continental riders, however, none are in as good form as Mathias Frank (IAM Cycling) however – the Swiss rider having finished fourth in Romandie and second at the Tour de Suisse. If he can carry his form from his home country into Yorkshire and France, a place in the top ten is certainly his for the taking.