Tour de France champion Chris Froome says he is ready to defend his title ahead of the race starting in Normandy tomorrow, but warns that the depth and quality of the competition means he will have a tough fight on his hands over the next three weeks.
The bookies have installed the Team Sky man as favourite, with the rider who was runner-up to him in both 2013 and 2015, Movistar’s Nairo Quintana seen as his closest challenger and Tinkoff’s Alberto Contador expected to complete the podium.
Beyond that trio, Froome’s close friend and former team mate Richie Porte, who moved to BMC Racing to get a chance to lead a team in the race, and Vuelta champion Fabio Aru of Astana, are seen as the pick of the outsiders, together with FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, on whom home hopes rest.
In what could be one of the more intriguing sub-plots of the race, Aru will be supported by the only man other than Froome or Contador to have pulled on the yellow jersey in Paris – Vincenzo Nibali, who won May’s Giro d’Italia with a stunning comeback in the final days.
Should Aru lose time but Nibali remain in the mix, Astana could face a similar situation as in 2009, when eventual winner Contador found himself in effect isolated from the rest of the team as Lance Armstrong, who would later be stripped of his third place overall, also challenged for the win.
"Personally I feel I'm in great shape coming off the back of the Dauphine and I'm ready for this year's Tour de France,” Froome told the Team Sky website.
"But this year, more than any other, the level of competition is that much higher. I feel as if I've got more rivals and the level of my rivals is that much higher.
"It is very much a climber's route this year. Even the two time trials, one is pretty much straight uphill and the other has two climbs on it - they are time trials where climbers will do well. That's why we've selected this team around me - everyone here can climb.
"Having said that we definitely can't take anything for granted. Anything can happen along the way and there's a lot of factors outside of our control,” he added.
"But we're here with a team that's ready to go and has the potential to get the job done. This is the biggest race in our calendar. We love being here and we love racing in France."
It’s likely to be a nervous opening weekend in Normandy, with the prospect of echelons tomorrow on tomorrow’s Stage 1 from Mont St-Michel to Omaha Beach. Expected to end in a bunch finish, the teams protecting the overall contenders will have to vie with those of the sprinters to stay at the head of the peloton and out of trouble.
Movistar will be acutely aware of that. Alejandro Valverde’s hopes dashed in 2013 when he found himself on the wrong side of a split in the peloton after puncturing on a stage through the heart of France. Meanwhile the 1 minute 28 seconds Quintana lost due to missing the front echelon on last year’s second stage was less than Froome’s advantage over him at the end of the race.
“We made a mistake in the Netherlands in 2015, and we can’t fail again,” Quintana told the Movistar website, highlighting “the stress of racing, danger and crashes.”
But the Colombian, who insisted that riders besides Froome and Contador could emerge as rivals, welcomed the mountainous route, underlining that he has “a powerful team, with plenty of good rouleurs plus talented climbers,” including Valverde, third last year.
Contador, whose Tinkoff team folds at the end of the season as its Russian owner leaves the sport, told its website: “This will be a very important Tour de France for all of us.
“It will be the Tour in which we would like to show Oleg Tinkov our gratitude for his support all these years.
“I'm exceptionally motivated for this race and we have been working throughout the year thinking about the Tour de France,” he added. “Hopefully, everything will play out the way we want."
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.