The prospect of the fantastic four lining up to contest what could be the most exciting Tour de France in years has whet the appetite of cycling fans since Vincenzo Nibali’s dominant victory last year.
That too was supposed to produce a battle royale between three strong pretenders.
But Nibali’s tour de force on the cobbles to take the Tour by the scruff of the neck, coupled with crashes that deprived the Grand Boucle of its two biggest stars, Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, resulted in a race that was devoid of suspense long before the Italian rode into Paris in yellow.
Twelve months ago, Nibali was considered more of a strong outsider than an absolute favourite.
But the nature of his victory, and some of the tactical acumen he’s shown this season, suggest that there is no reason to consider him anything other than on an equal footing with his peers.
Froome, due to the dominance of his Team Sky in 2012, when Bradley Wiggins won, and his own 2013 triumph, is perhaps always going to be seen as a slight notch ahead of his rivals.
His victories in summit finishes at Ax 3 Domaines and Mont Ventoux, where he rode away from the opposition in his ungainly and un-aerodynamic style, with elbows and knees seemingly dancing around outside the line of his bike as if being tugged by a puppeteer, left many stunned.
On his day, Froome, 30, is considered unbeatable, but he showed weakness last year, not least in his slow recovery from crashes.
The cobbles are back this year and Froome had climbed off his bike even before reaching them 12 months ago.
He was nervous about them then, and his nerves will not have calmed in the intervening period.
– Lolling style –
Yet, even though Froome has a slight aura more than the others, there can be no doubt that Contador is the most decorated contender.
Twice a former Tour winner, he won his second Giro d’Italia last month and back in September of last year he took his third Vuelta a Espana crown after a thrilling battle with Froome.
Contador’s lolling style allows him to accelerate quicker than Froome and it was by stealing a march on the Briton in the final kilometre of a pair of Vuelta stages, having grimly hung on to Froome’s initial attack lower down the slopes, that the Spaniard managed to make the race-winning difference.
Froome’s major advantage has always been the timetrials but there is only a 13.8km opening stage race against the clock this time around in which to put some time into his rivals.
The Tour will likely be won in the mountains, where it is the fourth member of the elite club, Nairo Quintana, who is perhaps the strongest — going up at least.
Nibali, 30, and 32-year-old Contador are far better descenders and they will have their chances to attack on fast downhill sections, but the waif that is Quintana is imperious when the gradients increase.
Second on the Tour two years ago and Giro winner last year, this is Quintana’s chance to prove that he is ready to win the most prestigious prize of all.
He’s also made a habit of starting slowly in the first week of Grand Tours before coming on strong in the last seven days.
And with four mountains stages in the final five days, Quintana will likely be coming into peak condition right when the Tour is being won and lost.
– African history-makers –
Outside of the race for the overall title it will be an historic Tour for the fact that Eritrean pair Daniel Teklehaimanot and Merhawi Kudus will become the first black Africans to race the Grand Boucle while their MTN-Qhubeka team becomes the first African outfit to ride the Tour.
Then there are the inevitable controversies as disgraced former star Lance Armstong’s intention to ride a charity bike event which will cover each stage of the Tour the day before the real event arrives.
As ever, there is the threat of strike action halting the race, such as Dutch police planning on disrupting the second stage on July 5.
And, of course, the minor jerseys are up for grabs, with Alexander Kristoff and John Degenkolb most likely to give Peter Sagan a run for his green jersey money while sprint king Mark Cavendish will look to add to his 25 stage victories.