The 100th Tour de France starts on Saturday with three former winners in the field, if we count Andy Schleck, who won it by default in 2010, but one outstanding favourite in Chris Froome.
That is odd, in one respect. Has any rider who has never won a Grand Tour ever started the biggest of them all, the Tour de France, as such a strong favourite?
Still, someone has to be favourite. And based on his form this season, as well as his progression over the last two years, it would be silly to bet against Froome. So, here are my predictions:
Tejay van Garderen
The one question about Froome is his team, which is strange when you consider Team Sky's strength in depth. But I am puzzled by the omission of Bernhard Eisel, for his experience, his strength, his reliability and his status in the peloton.
The team named by Sky is certainly strong, but there seems to be a shortage of old, respected heads. There are two debutants in Peter Kennaugh and Ian Stannard, and the most experienced Tour riders are Edvald Boasson Hagen, Geraint Thomas and Kanstantsin Siutsou (he started last year but crashed out in the first week), each with three appearances. Eisel has ridden the last nine.
The one thing that is guaranteed with Contador - and something that could make this Tour very different to last year's - is his aggression.
Quotes of the week
All this said, Froome and Richie Porte should be two of the strongest climbers in the race and Porte could also finish on the podium, but only if the race is as controlled as last year, which I don't think it will be.
Contador hasn't been in form this year but, based on his pedigree and consistency in Grand Tours and also the very strong Saxo Bank team he has backing him, he should be up there.
The one thing that is guaranteed with Contador - and something that could make this Tour very different to last year's - is his aggression. Even when he hasn't been at the top of his game, such as in 2011, it hasn't stopped him attacking and making the race exciting.
Tejay van Garderen has looked impressive this year, but a problem for him could be his BMC team-mate Cadel Evans, who seems reluctant to cede leadership. Van Garderen's greatest ally, in fact, could be Contador. If he rips the race apart then Evans is likely to be distanced. True, Van Garderen is hardly an explosive climber, but he should fare better than Evans if the racing is aggressive.
Mark Cavendish looks more formidable than ever this year but so does Peter Sagan, who won green last year, and I think he will win again this year. There are lots of stages, starting with two out of the three in Corsica, where he might score points - and indeed, stage wins - with Cavendish losing out.
But Cavendish could add up to six more stages to his 23 so far as he creeps towards Eddy Merckx's outright record of 34.
King of the Mountains
I (wrongly) tipped Dan Martin last year, in his Tour debut, to become the first English-speaker since Robert Millar in 1984 to wear the polka dot jersey into Paris. The competition has changed since the Eighties, these days seeming to favour riders, often from French teams, who specifically target the King of the Mountains.
If Martin ends up in the jersey it could be because he has a big day out on a major mountain stage, possibly winning the stage but also scooping up lots of KoM points. If he does, hopefully he and his Garmin-Sharp team will consider the jersey worth defending.
Otherwise, if the prize is to go to the best climber - which doesn't always happen these days - then the jersey could end up on the shoulders of Nairo Quintana, the Colombian on the Movistar team who is also a strong contender for top five.
Garmin-Sharp always produce a surprise - in fact, it shouldn't really be a surprise anymore - and this year it could be Andrew Talansky. It's hard to know what, precisely, he will do - excel in the time trials, win a stage, help Ryder Hesjedal or try and finish in the top ten himself? Whatever, expect to see him at some point over the next three weeks.
Other riders I'm looking forward to seeing are Thibaut Pinot - such a brilliant stage winner and top-ten finisher last year, and also someone having a quiet year but who had an outstanding Giro last year - and Thomas De Gendt. His team, Vacansoleil, are losing their sponsor at the end of the year so the pressure is on them to have a good Tour.
And a dark horse: Romain Sicard, the Frenchman who turned professional with Euskaltel-Euskadi with such fanfare in 2010, makes his debut at the Tour. Sicard has hardly set the heather on fire and he has had a few personal problems but he was such a talented rider in 2009, when he won the under-23 world road race title, that it is hard to believe it has all vanished.
On a similar note, Andy Schleck. What, if anything, will we see from him? Is he just going through a rocky patch, or have we seen the last of him as a Grand Tour contender?
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