2014 Tour de France gets underway on Saturday, with the first stage couple of stages actually taking place in the U.K. this year. Considering how good the British cyclists have been over the past few years, it seems a fitting way to kick things off.
Traditionally, the Tour begins with a short prologue that is often used just to jockey for early position, and while it can be wild at times, it is often a bit anti-climactic. This year, Stage 1 will be a 118.1 mile (190 km) jaunt from Leeds to Harrogate that promises to favor the sprinters coming down the stretch. There are a few category 3 and 4 climbs to earn some points towards the King of the Mountains Jersey in in the middle of the ride, but for the most part it'll be flat and fast, particularly near the end.
Brit Mark Cavendish has already said that he has geared his entire season towards winning this stage, and it would be tough to bet against him. The Manx Missile would love to win on British soil, and don the Yellow Jersey for the first time in his career. With 25 wins on his resume, he has a chance to finish as the all time leading stage rider in Tour history. But standing in his way is the big German rider Marcel Kittel, the man who won the final stage of the Tour last year on the Champs-Elysees. Look for that rivalry to take center stage once again, but don't be surprised if Peter Sagan doesn't steal this stage, and grab the Yellow Jersey for himself. The brash young Slovak already has two Green Jerseys as the Tour's top sprinter in his closet, and he'd like to add another.
After what is sure to be a frenetic start to the race, Sunday's Stage 2 will run from York to Sheffield. It will be 124.9 miles (201 km) of rolling hills with Category 3 and 4 climbs abounding, and even a Cat 2 thrown in for good measure. While this isn't a mountain stage by any means, it will test the legs of the sprinters early on, and give someone an opportunity to make a break away. It should provide plenty of fireworks for a stage this early in the race, and the GC contenders had better not get caught out napping.
That brings us to Monday's 96.3 mile (155 km) run from Cambridge to London. This one is almost completely flat, and it will be a sprinter's dream. Expect big crowds in the U.K.'s capital as the Tour returns for the first time since 2007. They'll be hoping to see Cavendish leading the peloton towards the finish line. We'll have to wait to see if he is up to the task.
Heading into the race, it is difficult to predict who will be the winner. Obviously, defending champ Chris Froome will be the man to watch, but he hasn't been riding well of late, and looked to be in poor form following a crash in the Criterium du Dauphine a few weeks back. One man who has been riding well is none other than Alberto Contador, who is hungry to get another win in the Tour. It appears that he has rounded back into form after struggling some in 2013, following a year long suspension for using a banned substance in 2012.
Froome and Contador aren't the only ones in the hunt for the Yellow Jersey. Joaquim Rodriguez is hoping to prove that last year's third place finish was no fluke, and the mountain stages that will come in the second and third weeks could allow the Spaniard to improve on that position. 25-year old American Andrew Talansky could be a threat as well, coming off a big win at the Criterium du Dauphine. His countryman, Tejay Van Garderen, is now the undisputed leader of Team BMC, and they'll ride for him this year. He's hoping to bounce back from a very disappointing 2013 Tour.
As usual, I'll be covering the race as closely as I can. Typically I write daily updates from each stage, and I'm planning on doing the same this year as well. It should be an interesting Tour to watch, as the course is going to be extremely tough, particular the mountain stages. Will Froome be able to successfully defend? Can Contador reclaim past glory? Will a new legend emerge from the Peloton? We'll have to wait to see. Personally, I can't wait to watch it all play out on cycling's grandest stage.