For the next three weeks, almost two hundred cyclists will compete over 3,500km in one of the most gruelling endurance races in sport – the Tour de France. Starting in Liege, the riders will make their way down across the French countryside, through the Alps and the Pyrenees before finishing on the famous Champs-Elysees in Paris.
The suspension of Alberto Contador has opened up the race for a potential new winner. The favourite is Bradley Wiggins, who will be looking to improve on his best finish of fourth in 2010 (Evens Bradley Wiggins to win Tour de France). Wiggins has had an outstanding year, having won the Paris-Nice, the Tour de Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphiné, although doubts still remain about his ability to cope in the multiple-mountain stages of the Tour.
The defending champion, Cadel Evans, will be looking to retain his jersey. Before last year, it looked as though Evans would be the perennial bridesmaid, with two second places and a fourth placed finish (9/4 Cadel Evans to win Tour de France). He can match Wiggins in the crucial time-trials, and with a strong team including Philippe Gilbert and Tejay van Garderen, he will be fancying his chances to win a second title.
There are a couple of dangerous dark horses though, in one of the more open races in recent times. The Italian, Vincenzo Nibali, rides his first Tour de France in three years, although has proven grand tour pedigree, having won the Vuelta in 2010 and has two top three finishes in 2010 and 2011 in the Giro (18/1 Vincenzo Nibali to win Tour de France). Indeed, he probably has the strongest, if most volatile, team including Ivan Basso, Peter Sagan and Sylvester Szmyd.
Team Sky are looking for success on two fronts in this race, with Mark Cavendish hoping to retain the green jersey. While his team will be predominantly focussed on supporting Wiggins, the reigning world champion, Cavendish, is perfectly capable of winning stages on his own and completing the double for Team Sky (15/2 Wiggins to win Yellow Jersey and Cavendish to win Green Jersey).
The King of the Mountains jersey is always keenly contested and Vacansoleil’s Johnny Hoogerland will be looking to banish the memories of 2011 when he was knocked off his bike by a television car when looking set for a serious challenge (6/1 Johnny Hoogerland to win King of the Mountains Jersey). Perennial challengers David Moncoutie and Chris Anker Sorensen are also prominent in the betting, while 38-year old Alexandre Vinokourov has hinted he might target this competition in his ninth and final Tour de France (40/1 Alexandre Vinokourov to win King of the Mountains).
The final jersey at stake is the white jersey for the best young rider. It should be an intriguing battle between four potential future stars. The Dutch pair of Steven Kruijswijk and Wout Poels will undoubtedly feature, along with American Tejay van Garderen, who BMC view as Cadel Evans long-term replacement. However, the most experienced is the Estonian, Rein Taaramae, who rides in his fifth Tour de France at only 25-year old (9/2 Rein Taaramae to win White Jersey). He looked on course for a top ten finish last year before Pierre Rolland pipped him at the post, but will fancy his chances of not only winning the white jersey, but also finishing in the top 10 of the overall classification.