With less than a week to go before the start of the Tour de France, excitement is building ahead of Yorkshire’s Grand Depart. With thousands of spectators expected to line the route through the Dales, Chief Sports Writer Scott Wilson picks out some of the riders to look out for
Last year’s champion looks well set to defend his title, with Sir Dave Brailsford having selected the Team Sky squad specifically to give Froome the best possible chance of becoming the first British rider to win back-to-back Tours.
He was imperious as he claimed the crown 12 months ago, with his dominant performance on the ascent to Mont Ventoux producing one of the great Tour de France moments.
He started this season in equally strong shape, winning the Tour de Romandie and Tour of Oman, but suffered an untimely mishap when he fell on the recent Criterium du Dauphine and dropped out of contention on the final stage. Provided he is fully recovered, he remains the rider to beat.
ALBERTO CONTADOR (Tinkoff-Saxo)
The Spaniard won the Tour title in 2007 and 2009, and pushed Froome all the way for the majority of last year’s race before a failure to match his British rival on a couple of crucial climbs eventually resulted in him finishing fourth.
He has a chequered past as he was stripped of the 2010 Tour title after testing positive for the banned substance clenbuterol, although he maintains that food contamination was to blame.
A strong all-rounder whose abilities in the mountains make him a leading contender for the overall crown, Contador outperformed Froome on the recent Criterium, finishing second. A repeat of that form over the next month could make him hard to peg back.
VINCENZO NIBALI (Astana)
Having finished third in the 2012 Tour de France, Nibali cemented his status as a likely future champion when he demolished a high-class field to win last year’s Giro D’Italia.
Success on the Giro meant the Italian, who is nicknamed ‘the shark’, missed out on the Tour, but he returns to the field this year looking to realise his obvious potential.
A powerful climber who also has the pace to win on the flat, Nibali’s form this season has been somewhat inconsistent, with a failure to finish in the top four of either the Tour de Romandie or Criterium suggesting that all might not be right. He will have to improve on that to trouble Froome and Contador, but boasts bags of raw talent and the backing of a powerful Astana line-up.
ALEJANDRO VALVERDE (Movistar)
Nicknamed ‘the bullet’, the Spaniard is a proven sprinter who can also handle himself in the mountains. Whether his climbing is quite good enough to land a Tour title, however, remains to be seen.
He finished eighth in last year’s race, having previously finished fifth in 2007, and is a former winner of the Vuelta a Espana as well as a three-time victor in the Vuelta a Andalucia, with his most recent success coming earlier this year.
He is a somewhat controversial figure as he served a two-year suspension between 2010 and 2012 for his involvement in Operacion Puerto, a Spanish police investigation that uncovered systematic doping.
ANDREW TALANSKY (Garmin-Sharp)
The 25-year-old is regarded as one of cycling’s brightest rising stars, with his tenth-placed finish as he made his debut in last year’s Tour de France underlining his considerable potential.
It might be a little early for the American to be contending for overall honours on the Tour, but his victory in the recent Criterium du Dauphine, which came courtesy of a sensational performance on the final stage, made seasoned observers reconsider their assessment of what he might be capable of.
American cycling desperately needs a new figurehead after the trauma of the Lance Armstrong years, and having developed through the US collegiate system, Talansky has emerged as his nation’s great new hope.
FIVE SPRINTERS TO WATCH ON STAGE ONE
MARK CAVENDISH (Omega Pharma-Quick Step)
The British sprint star will be desperate to add to his 25 stage wins during this year’s Tour. Would especially like to win in Harrogate, which is his mother’s home town.
MARCEL KITTEL (Giant-Shimano)
The German claimed four stage wins on last year’s Tour, even upstaging Cavendish on the final-day sprint up the Champs-Elysees. Is likely to be Cavendish’s biggest rival for a stage win in Harrogate.
PETER SAGAN (Cannondale)
Has won the green jersey for the Tour de France’s leading sprinter in each of the last two seasons. The Slovakian is ultra-reliable and is supported by a powerful team.
ANDRE GREIPEL (Lotto-Belisol)
An out-and-out sprinter, who won the points crown at the Vuelta in 2009. Hasn’t always lived up to his potential, but has claimed five stage wins on the Tour de France.
ALEXANDER KRISTOFF (Team Katusha)
The Norwegian won the bronze medal in the road race at the 2012 Olympics in London. Will be making his Tour de France debut this year with high expectations of a stage success.
FIVE CLIMBERS TO WATCH ON STAGE TWO
PIERRE ROLLAND (Team Europcar)
The Frenchman finished eighth overall in the 2012 Tour de France, but established his credentials as one of the leading climbers when he won on Alpe d’Huez in 2011.
JOAQUIM RODRIGUEZ (Team Katusha)
The Spaniard finished third in last year’s Tour and won the mountains classification in the Vuelta in 2005. A consistent climber, he should contend for the polka-dot jersey.
THOMAS VOECKLER (Team Europcar)
Now 35, but the Frenchman remains as reliable as ever despite his advancing years. Was the Tour’s champion climber in 2012 and will be riding in his 12th edition this year.
DAN MARTIN (Garmin-Sharp)
The Irishman shot to prominence when he won a stage on last year’s Tour, surging clear of the field on a difficult climb. Broke his collarbone in this year’s Giro d’Italia, but should be fit for the Tour.
ROMAIN BARDET (Ag2r-La Mondiale)
Only turned professional in 2012, but finished 15th on last year’s Tour and looked especially strong in the mountains. Finished fifth overall on this year’s Criterium.