The European peloton returns to British shores later this week with the fifth edition of the Tour de Yorkshire. Defending champion Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) is set to return, while Mark Cavendish (Dimension Data) and Marcel Kittel (Katusha-Alpecin) both arrive looking to kick-start their seasons after a difficult spring.
The race also sees the first outing of Team Ineos in their official 2019 kit, after the takeover from Team Sky. Four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome will lead a team that includes Ian Stannard and Owain Doull as the British squad aims to win their first Tour de Yorkshire title since the inaugural edition in 2015. Since then Thomas Voeckler, Serge Pauwels and Van Avermaet have all triumphed through a mixture of aggressive and tactically astute racing.
Although this is arguably the weakest field in the race's short history, with just four WorldTour squads on the start list, there are plenty of interesting subplots to follow during the four stages. Along with the likely protests set to befall Team Ineos over their lead sponsor's controversial fracking programme, there are a number of rider appearances worthy of tracking.
CCC Team arrive with arguably one of their strongest squads with Van Avermaet supported by Pauwels, Michael Schar, and Alessandro De Marchi. The men in orange have struggled for wins since the start of the season but with two former winners in their roster, they will look to be a significant factor over the four-day event.
While Froome is unlikely to contest the GC, the likes of Stannard, Chris Lawless and Doull will be determined to make something of the race. Doull impressed during Opening Weekend in Belgium, while Lawless has a fast finish that could trouble the more established sprinters in the race.
Mark Cavendish returns after a promising outing at the Tour of Turkey. The British sprinter is still finding his form after a lengthy battle with the Epstein Barr virus. He will use the Tour de Yorkshire as his next key outing before the Tour of California later in May but Dimension Data arrive in Yorkshire with Tom Jelte Slagter as a strong bet for the overall standings.
Kittel, after a win early in the season, has struggled for results and form in recent weeks. The German sprinter, like Cavendish, will be desperate for a win although his record in the race is poor, with one DNF on stage 1 in 2015. Nathan Haas has found consistency of late, and the Australian is another rider who could profit from the aggressive racing and demanding parcours at the race.
Other riders to watch include debutant Jesper Hansen (Cofidis), Tour de France stage winner Lilian Calmejane (Total) and the precocious young talents, Thomas Pidcock (Wiggins Le Col) and British national road champion Connor Swift (Madison Genesis). Two others worth noting are James Shaw and Scott Thwaites after both were jettisoned by WorldTour teams at the end of 2018. Shaw has found a spot at Continental level with SwiftCarbon, while Thwaites now rides for Vitus Pro Cycling. Both riders will be desperate to impress in a bid to return to the top tier of the sport.
Finally, watch out for the young Hagens Berman Axeon team. The American squad has a track record in producing excellent young riders. This year they arrive in Yorkshire with U23 Liege-Bastogne-Liege winner Kevin Vermaerke, and the highly rated 20-year-old Dane, Mikkel Bjerg, who won the U23 world time trial title in 2017 and 2018.
The Tour of Yorkshire may not have a summit finish to speak of or a time trial in which a pecking order can be easily established but the four-day race still has plenty to offer.
Each of the four stages includes terrain that should keep the race finely poised between the sprinters and the breakaway specialists, including stage 1 between Doncaster and Selby. At 182.5km in length, the stage heads east before cutting back inland towards the finish. Last year Harry Tanfield survived from the break to win the stage and pull on the first leader's jersey of the race with the stage finishing in Doncaster.
Stage 2 from Barnsley to Bedale, follows a similar pattern, although the parcours comes in at just 132km of racing. The route does, however, take in part of the UCI Road Championships route, with a segment of the stage passing through Harrogate. The finish is once again flat and should see the sprinters come to the fore.
The following day's racing from Bridlington to Scarborough should leave the biggest imprint on the overall standings with five categorized climbs in the middle of the 135km route. The rolling roads are a consistent feature throughout the stage with Dylan Groenewegen the last rider to win in Scarborough. Rather importantly, Voeckler and Lars Petter Nordhaug have also won in the seaside resort, using their stage wins to cement their overall victories.
Any hope of the final stage ending in a mass bunch sprint should be easily dismissed. The final outing between Halifax and Leeds contains five more climbs, at 182km, the ability of one team to control the race will be severely tested.
Finally, the weather could prove to be a decisive factor. With cross-winds along the coast and a high probability of rain, the Tour de Yorkshire is a hard-fought race to win.