Tour de France 2014: The race preview

The 101st Tour de France is a special occasion for Great Britain with Yorkshire hosting the Grand Départ in Leeds on July 5 and Chris Froome looking to defend the title he won last year and make it three British wins in a row.

From Great Britain, the race makes an excursion into Belgium to mark the 100th anniversary of the First World War and visits the pavé of Paris-Roubaix and heads south, skirting the Eastern frontier of France as La Grand Boucle makes its way across the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees in a finely balanced route with ample opportunities for the sprinters and just one individual time trial.

The reintroduction of cobbles, last seen in 2010, will ensure a more anxious first week than the peloton is accustomed too, while the first three British stages of the Tour aren't as straight forward as they seem.

With a brief foray into the Alps, the visit of the Pyrenees in the third week will decide the 2014 Tour de France champion with the solitary time trial, a leg busting 54km, the final roll of the dice for the likes of Chris Froome, Alberto Contador and Vincenzo Nibali.

The General Classification favourites

Chris Froome was unequivocally the overall favourite for the Tour last year and he didn't disappoint in winning a maiden maillot jaune. In 2014, friction over the inclusion and finally, the exclusion of Bradley Wiggins and cracks in the seemingly once invincible Sky train have revealed a vulnerability to Froome's title defence. The return to form of Alberto Contador should see the Spaniard challenge Froome far more than last year and he has proven this season that his attacking and aggressive racing has unsettled Froome as he demonstrated at the Dauphiné.

With last year's runner-up Nairo Quintana absent, Movistar are putting all its eggs in the Alejandro Valverde basket and like Contador, the 33-year-old is looking to be back at his best after a successful Spring.

Third place last year, Joaquim Rodriguez turned his attention to the Giro d'Italia only to crash out and now rides the Tour with two eyes on the Vuelta.

Vincenzo Nibali last rode the Tour in 2012 and was the only rider to really challenge Sky's dominance. Having just won the Italian national road race, Nibali is surely keen for a good showing in July in the tricolore and with his last year grand tour results reading, third, first and second – Nibali is a serial podium placer.

Andrew Talansky and Tejay van Garderen lead the American charge and both will be keen to confirm their talents with a second top-ten overall while the French expectations of the first Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 will be shared by Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet who are also contenders for the best young rider's white jersey.

A sprinting battle royale

Having seen the emergence of Kittel last year, Cavendish's retuned Omega Pharma-Quick Step lead out train is looking see the 'Manx missile' move closer Eddy Merck's record haul of 34 stage wins.

Andre Greipel is the third sprinting ace in the deck and having reclaimed his German national title, will again be a force to reckon with. Despite lacking the top-end speed, Peter Sagan has proved to be the craftiest of the sprinters and will be the favourite for a third consecutive green jersey.

When the Tour parcours was announced in October, the return to the pave of Northern France piqued the interest of the GC men. With the Yorkshire stages more selective than their profiles suggest and the pave, the first week will again see a nervy peloton with everything to lose and not much to gain.

While the Alps and Pyrenees are staples of the Tour, a return to the Vosges and the summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 10 -- the place of Froome's first Tour stage win -- is where the first real time gaps will open up.

The next big test for the GC riders is two days back-to-back in the Alps. Stage 13 will be a major day for the GC riders and as the cliché goes, it could be the day the Tour is won but it could be the day the Tour is lost. The 1753m Chamroouse HC climb makes it return to the race having been used in the 2001 Tour as a mountain time trial and the GC riders will look to test their legs against their rivals.

The following day is arguably the queen stage of the 2014 Tour with the 2058m Col du Lautaret and 2630m Col d'Izoard -- the highest point in this year's race featuring before the summit finish on the 1885m Rissoul for the first time in the Tour's history

The climb was used in the Dauphiné last year with Froome finishing runner-up behind breakaway winner Alessandro De Marchi.

Regardless of who is sitting where on the GC at the start of stage 16, the next three days will be crucial in deciding who will be wearing yellow Paris. The Tour makes a return to the Port de Bales four years after the 'chain gate affair' that saw Andy Schleck lose hold of the yellow jersey.

With three cat 1 climbs and the 1654m Saint-lary Pla d'Aget all squeezed into the 124.5km stage 17, expect a fast start and an even faster finish to this stage as it's the second last chance the climbers will have to build on any advantage.

The following day takes in the Col du Tourmalet before dipping into the valley and finishing on the Hautacam which makes its 20th anniversary since its inclusion into the race and is the last chance for a pure climber to take as much time as possible on their rivals before the deciding time trial.

Once again with no time bonuses awarded at stage or intermediate sprints, every second lost or won will be deicide the 2014 Tour de France winner and if the Vosges, Alps and Pyrenees all fail to build big gaps amongst the favourites, the maillot jaune will be decided by a 54km time trial from Bergerac to Périgueux, in homage to Miguel Indurain, before a final twilight victory lap of the Champs-Élysées.


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