The Tour de l'Ain is set to attract more attention than usual when the 26th edition of the five-day stage race kicks off with a 4.6km prologue time trial in the Jura town of St Amour on Tuesday evening.
Much of the focus will be on defending champion Romain Bardet, sixth overall at the Tour de France last month, and his Ag2r-La Mondiale teammate Jean-Christophe Péraud, who finished on the second step of the podium in Paris. But the form of Omega Pharma-QuickStep duo Mark Cavendish and Rigoberto Urán will also be under scrutiny. Cavendish has not raced since crashing out on the Tour's opening day, while Urán's layoff dates back to June 1, when he finished second overall in the Giro d'Italia.
Cavendish is the outstanding sprinter in the 96-rider field and will be the favourite to win the first and second stages despite this being his first racing action since he had surgery on his shoulder following his crash in Harrogate. After these two flatter stages into Montrevel-en-Bresse and Saint-Vulbas, the climbers will come to the fore. The first of these stages to Lelex Mont-Jura features five climbs before the final ascent, while the concluding day includes seven categorised climbs in just 130km of racing.
Cavendish did not ride the Ride London Classic on Sunday, opting to stay in Tuscany to prepare for his return to racing.
"The Tour de l'Ain will be important to see where I am at with my training and recovery from my injury, and also as a bit of a test at competition pace," Cavendish said in a statement from the Belgian team. "The rest of my program will be decided 100 percent after Tour de l'Ain depending on how I feel during that race. Together with the team we will then discuss how to approach the rest of my season."
Bardet admitted he's not prepared specifically for the defence of his title, largely due to post-Tour criterium commitments.
"I did some efforts on Monday morning in order to get my heart rate up with a view to the prologue," the Ag2r-La Mondiale climber told L'Équipe adding: "You've got to make a lot of efforts with all of the accelerations on those small circuits. So in terms of power output, I've seen things that I wouldn't have been able to do in training."
Like Bardet, Tour runner-up Péraud has extended his contract with Ag2r-La Mondiale to the end of 2016 and has his sights set on a number of objectives late in the season, including the world time trial championship in Spain.
"The selector Bernard Bourreau has told me to prepare for it. The course, which doesn't have a lot of flat on it at all, really inspires me," Peraud told L'Équipe.
Other notable starters in the event include Julian Alaphilippe, who finished third in RideLondon at the weekend, FDJ climber Kenny Elissonde and Garmin-Sharp's Tom-Jelte Slagter and Dan Martin.