I have to confess, the next three weeks is one of my favourite periods of the year.
The Tour de France is one of, if not the, one event of the year that I look forward to the most. Three weeks of blood, sweat, tears, punctures, crashes, tantrums and much more besides.
It is arguably the toughest sporting event around and the route for 2015 suggests that it will take an almighty effort to claim the maillot jaune this time around. It promises to be an intriguing tour across cobbles, in team time trials, down dodgy descents, across open windy sections and up short steep climbs.
The 102nd tour could well be one of the most compelling ever.
Yes, there is a lot of doubt about the sport of cycling but you cannot fail to be drawn in by an event that this year will start in Utrecht, Netherlands and end, as is customary, on the Champs-Elysees in Paris. It is the 21st time that the tour has started outside France and it is a formidable challenge facing the riders who have to rely on a large (legal) dose from Lady Luck.
Cycling is a sport that has had its controversies and that is the elephant in room. Doping has haunted the sport for years, the highest profile being seven times Le Tour winner Lance Armstrong whose name has been struck from the record. There were plenty before him, even some that are still riding today. You can never say never but there is a feeling that the sport is the cleanest is has been in years following the damaging Armstrong revelations.
Incidentally, Lance Armstrong will be showing his face once again on the route as he is controversially taking part in the ‘One Day Ahead’. He is to join Geoff Thomas and his team for just two stages of the tour to raise money for Cure Leukaemia.
The Tour is the biggest and most recognised cycle race in the world. It all kicks off with a 13.7km individual time trial around Utrecht on Saturday before heading to Belgium for a couple of days. The second stage to Zelande leads to the third, Antwerp to Hey. The advertising caravan, media procession and riders then make their wait into France.
The route continues down across the North West of the country to Vannes before jumping straight into the Pyrenees mountain stages snaking its way through to Rodez and Valence before hitting the Alps with the usual Paris finish on the horizon.
I will bring you my thoughts after each week is done which will most likely be on the rest days. Here are my riders to watch and a few odds and information ahead of the 2015 Tour de France.
Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo)
No matter what you think of this rider it would be foolish to discount the Spaniard. This years Giro D’Italia winner, even with a dislocated shoulder and a number of crashes, has won the TdF twice, in 2007 and 2009. He would like nothing more than to add a third title to his name and it is difficult to bet against him. However, the Giro D’Italia and TdF double has not been done since Marco Pantani (1998) which just goes to show how difficult it is. His 2014 tour ended in disaster as he abandoned after suffering a fractured leg in a crash on the first summit stage even though he rode 20km through the pain barrier.
Chris Froome (Sky)
The 2013 winner is back to face his demons after an ill-fated defence last year. He crashed out on stage five having fallen twice before that. It remains his only Grand Tour win and he will be looking to add to that proving that 2013 was not a one off. The Kenyan born Sky rider is in great form heading into the race having won the Vuelta a Andalucia as well as the Criterium du Dauphine. He is arguably with the best outfit to give him a chance of winning the tour again in Team Sky. General manager Dave Brailsford was the mastermind behind Bradley Wiggins 2012 tour win followed by Froome the year after. A third win in four years for the team would be something quite special.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
Like Froome, the Colombian has only one Grand Tour win to his name which was the Giro D’Italia in 2014 also securing the young rider classification. He was king of the mountains in the 2013 TdF as well as the best young rider so there is certainly pedigree. There are signs of form going into the race after winning Tirreno-Adriatico but had to pull out of the Vuelta a Andalucia after a crash during the Colombian national road race championships. There are doubts on his form over cobbles due to his lightweight frame but having taken part in the E3 Harelbeke and Dwars door Vlaanderen already this year he has made every effort to prepare well.
Peter Sagan (Tinkoff Saxo)
The enigmatic former cycle cross and mountain bike champion is considered one of the most promising young talents in the sport. He is the reigning green jersey winner, a title which he has held for three consecutive years and there is no reason why he will not continue his love affair with the race with a fourth sprinters title. This year he is with a new team, Tinkoff Saxo, which already boasts the likes of Alberto Contador, Ivan Basso and Roman Kreuziger in their ranks.
Mark Cavendish (Etixx Quick Step)
The elite list of sprinters taking part this year is mouth watering and the Manx Missile will have a lot of support. He began life on the track but converted to road racing in 2006 and has not looked back since. Like Sagan, he has a real love for this race having won 25 stages to date which puts him third in the all time list behind legends Eddy Merckx (34) followed by Bernard Hinault (28). Meanwhile, his 43 Grand Tour stage wins puts him fourth on the all time list. The rider from the Isle of Man is arguably in his best form going into this race having already won the Dubai Tour and the Kuurne-Brussels-Kuurne this year.
Alexander Kristoff (Team Katusha)
The Norwegian is in his fourth year with Team Katusha and has experienced more than his fair share of success in that time. However, he has yet to secure his first Grand Tour win but managed his first two stage wins in this race last year which he will be looking to build on. Already this season he has won the Tour of Flanders, Scheldeprijs, GP du canton d’Argovie as well as the Three Days of De Panne. He was the national champion in 2007 and 2011 and will resume battle with Peter Sagan who he beat to a narrow stage victory in the Tour de Suisse.
Betting Odds by Coral
Current betting odds for the rider to end the tour in the YELLOW jersey (overall) courtesy of Coral;
- Chris Froome (Sky) 15/8
- Nairo Quintana (Movistar) 5/2
- Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo) 4/1
- Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) 4/1
- Thibaut Pinot (FDJ) 25/1
Current betting odds for the rider to end the tour in the GREEN jersey (sprinter) courtesy of Coral;
- Peter Segan (Tinkoff Saxo) 5/6
- Alexander Kristoff (Team Katusha) 10/3
- Mark Cavendish (Etixx Quick Step) 4/1
- John Degenkolb (Giant Alpecin) 10/1
- Andre Greipel (Lotto Soudal) 25/1
Current betting odds for the rider to end the tour in the POLKADOT jersey (king of the mountains) courtesy of Coral;
- Nairo Quintana (Movistar) 9/2
- Chris Froome (Sky) 15/2
- Pierre Rolland (Team Europcar) 17/2
- Alberto Contador (Tinkoff Saxo) 10/1
- Julien Arredondo (Trek Factory Racing) 14/1
Last four yellow jersey winners (overall);
- 2014 Vincenzo Nibali
- 2013 Chris Froome
- 2012 Bradley Wiggins
- 2011 Cadel Evans
Last four green jersey winners (sprinter);
- 2014 Peter Sagan
- 2013 Peter Sagan
- 2012 Peter Sagan
- 2011 Mark Cavendish
Last four polkadot jersey winners (king of mountain);
- 2014 Rafal Majka
- 2013 Nairo Quintana
- 2012 Thomas Voeckler
- 2011 Samuel Sanchez
Last four white jersey winners (young rider);
- 2014 Thibaut Pinot
- 2013 Nairo Quintana
- 2012 Tejay van Garderen
- 2011 Pierre Rolland
Coverage of this years Tour de France will be on Eurosport and ITV in the UK.
Online coverage will be available on www.allsportsfree.com/other-sports/