The Tour de France is about to kick off in Mont-Saint-Michel on July 2, and the opening stage will be one for the faster men of the peloton. Not only is it an opportunity to take stage glory but also a chance to wear the event's first maillot jaune -- The race from Mont-Saint-Michel to Utah Beach - Sainte-Marie-Du-Mont promises to be an exciting one.
In all, there are roughly nine stages that the sprinters will mark. After the opener, stage 2 from Saint Lô to Cherbourg-Octeville could be one for the puncheurs. But stage 3's race from Grandville to Angers will be back in the hands of the sprint teams. If a breakaway doesn't stick on stage 4's race from Saumur to Limoges, look for the sprinters to be front-and-centre in the closing kilometre.
Following a jaunt through the Andorran mountains, the sprinters will be pleased with the flatter stage 11 from Carcassonne to Montpelier, where they can resume what they do best. Stage 14 from Montélimar to Villars-les-Dombes Parc des Oiseaux also looks like it could end in a bunch sprint. And the second week of the Tour will close out with a day for the sprinters on stage 16 from Moirans-en-Montagne to Bern.
As per tradition, the Tour de France will end with stage 21's celebratory race from Chantilly to Paris along the Champs-Élysées, where the general classification will have already been sewn up, but the sprinters will have one last chance at glory.
The cycling world is waiting in suspense to watch the Grand Depart of the Tour de France from Mont-Saint-Michel to Utah Beach - Sainte-Marie-Du-Mont. The stage is flat from start to finish and almost certain to be a bunch sprint. All eyes will be on German sprinter Marcel Kittel to see if he can once again win the opening stage at the Tour and don the yellow jersey as he did in Bastia in 2013, Harrogate in 2014.
Despite his terrible season last year, marred by illness and an unhappy situation at Giant-Alpecin, Kittel seems to have been resurrected into the budding sprinter he once was with his new team Etixx-QuickStep. He's won a stage in almost every race he's started this year, including the Dubai Tour, where he won the overall, Volta ao Algarve, Three Days of De Panne, Scheldeprijs, Tour de Romandie and two stages of the Giro d'Italia, where he also wore the maglia rosa for a day.
Frustrated that he did not get the win at the German championships last week, Kittel vowed to redeem himself in France, saying, "I will now channel this anger so that I can bring it on the pedals in the sprints in the Tour."
Aside from his speed, the best thing Kittel has going for him this year is his powerful lead-out train with the Etixx-QuickStep team, and that right there is a winning combination.
Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal):
If all eyes aren't on Kittel, chances are they will be on his nearest rival, German road champion Andre Greipel. He has a character so humble that one could easily forget he's in the race, reminded only during the last few hundred metres of a flat stage when his giant frame is seen powering toward the finish line like a freight train.
Greipel, a ten-time stage winner at the Tour de France, proved to be in prime condition this spring at the Giro d'Italia where he won three stages and led the points classification before pulling out of the race following his stage 12 win, citing bigger goals in France. He's had limited racing since his success in Italy, but he has won a stage at the Tour of Luxembourg, and he won the German road title.
After winning four stages last year, Greipel will be the one to beat, and he might well end up with the first maillot jaune of the French Grand Tour.
"Last year was wonderful with four stage wins, but Saturday we all start from scratch. The goal is to win at least one stage this edition, and depending on when I achieve that one I can aim for another one. Saturday is the first opportunity, with the yellow jersey as an extra reward for the winner. I can rely on the most experienced lead out I've ever had, with Jürgen Roelandts who is part of my train again this year. The team is almost entirely built around me, the fact that the team has that much confidence in me, makes me happy."
Peter Sagan is also eyeing the stage 1 victory and Tour de France's first yellow jersey, but these aspirations might prove temporary as he has committed to Alberto Contador's goals of winning the overall title.
Still, there is no denying Sagan's ability to thwart a bunch sprint and take the prizes for himself. He's raced in four Tours de France and has accumulated four stage wins (in 2012 and 2013). He has also won the green points jersey four times and could look to add a fifth consecutive jersey to his resume.
"I want to try to win some stages, take the green if possible and help Alberto Contador go for yellow, I think that's the bigger goal we have," Sagan said in the opening press conference.
"I tried to be in yellow for four years, but it's never happened. I think it's better not to try, so maybe it will happen. My idea is that if things happen they come along, if you look for them, they don't happen."
What can you say about a rider who has won 26 stages at the Tour de France except, ‘don't underestimate his ability to win another.' With the exception of 2014, Mark Cavendish has won a stage at the Tour ever year since 2008, and this year he is on the hunt for more.
He will rely on his trusted lead-out men Mark Renshaw and Bernhard Eisel to deliver him to stage wins. "The first few days will be dominated by the sprinters, and we are confident to be right up there with Mark Cavendish…," said the team's director Rolf Aldag.
Despite being the most prominent sprinter of his generation, Cavendish comes into this Tour de France as a bit of an unknown because he has spent this season juggling ambitions in both road racing and on the track. Following the Tour de France he will head directly to Rio de Janeiro to compete at the Olympic Games as a member of British Cycling's track program.
He's had to plan out a new strategy for racing the Tour de France this year, and at the pre-race press conference he told the media that, "It could be the best thing I've ever done, it could be the worst."
Team Katusha will split their efforts at the Tour de France between GC aspirations around Joaquim Rodriguez and stage sprints for Alexander Kristoff.
The Norwegian is a two-time stage winner at the Tour, securing those victories in the 2014 edition of the race, while last year his best finish was third place in stage 15. He will have a crew of helpers including Jacopo Guarnieri, Michael Mørkøv and strong-man Marco Haller to bring him in line with the other best sprinters in the field during the final few hundred metres of the flatter days.
But like Peter Sagan and John Degenkolb, Kristoff will have more opportunities at stage glory than some of the pure sprinters in the field because he will be able to capitalise off of his Classics strengths to get him through the undulating stages in a great position to pounce.
Like Mark Cavendish, John Degenkolb is also a bit of an unknown as a sprinter at the Tour de France this year. Not because he has been juggling two disciplines, but because he has spent much of the season recovering from injury.
Degenkolb was involved in a terrifying training crash, where his team was hit by a car in Spain, and he nearly severed his index finger. It has been a long road to recovery, and he only started racing in May at Eschborn-Frankfurt, a race he didn't finish. Since then, he has raced at the Tour of California and the Criterium du Dauphine, achieving a few top -10 stage finishes.
Though his form is completely unknown, his team has rallied around him and have stood by their belief that he could reach peak form for the Tour de France.
A former winner of Paris-Roubaix and Milan-San Remo, Degenkolb could very well surprise the other fast men and pull off a stage win in both the flatter days and the Classic-type stages at this year's Tour de France.