The route

Starting out in northern England, the first three stages are more or less made for the sprinters. However, stage 2 includes numerous small hills, making it some kind of a mini Liège-Bastogne-Liège. It could easily bring out a surprise winner – just like stage 2 did on Corsica last year.

On Tuesday, the race enters France with yet another stage for the sprinters. Stage 5 is the feared cobblestone stage, which could end some riders’ ambitions of overall success early. The sprinters will get a chance to shine again on stage 6 and most likely again on stage 7 despite a short climb close to the line.

After a week of sprinting, we should see the first small fight amongst the GC riders on stage 8 with the steep finish in Gérardmer. Stage 9 seems perfect for a breakaway to make it, while stage 10 will be the first day we will see big time differences in the overall classification.

Stage 11 is another day for a breakaway. So is stage 12, unless Cannondale or Orica-GreenEdge want to control the stage for their fast guys. Stage 13 and 14 are two tough days in the mountains, while stage 15 is yet another chance for the sprinters.

Stage 16, 17, and 18 take place in the Pyrenees. This will be the last chance for the climbers to get an advantage before the long (and only) time trial of the race on stage 20. Stage 19 will most likely end in a sprint and so will the final stage in Paris, making it a total of nine sprint stages in this year’s Tour de France.

Head to steephill.tv for stage profiles for each of the 21 stages in this year’s Tour de France.

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The favourites

Naturally, the top favourite is the defending champion Chris Froome. Team Sky is betting everything on the Kenyan-born Brit, leaving former winner Bradley Wiggins at home to avoid any internal disputes. Since his breakthrough in the Vuelta a España in 2011, Chris Froome has proven to be the best stage race rider in the world. He’s one of the best climbers and is levels above his GC competitors in the time trials.

To help him win the Tour de France for the second time, Froome can count on a very strong team to support him. With guys like Vasil Kiryienka, Geraint Thomas, David Lopez, Mikel Nieve and Richie Porte I see Team Sky as the strongest team in the mountains this year. Nieve and Porte will be especially important for Froome. Personally, I expect Nieve to be leading the group of favorites when there are only 10 riders left (incl. Porte and Froome).

Without any bad luck or other incidents, I can’t see Chris Froome losing any time in the mountains. Even if he does, he will be able to take it back in the long and hard time trial on the penultimate day. Froome is also in good hands for stage 5 on the cobblestones, thanks to Geraint Thomas and Bernie Eisel. Don’t forget that Thomas finished second on a similar stage in the Tour in 2010. Anything can happen in the Tour de France, but personally, I would be surprised not to see Chris Froome winning this race.

Will we see the same sight on stage 21 of this year's Tour?

Will we see the same sight on stage 21 of this year’s Tour?

However, I’m sure that he won’t win it with such a huge margin as last year. Alberto Contador is finally back at his former level and he’s ready to fight. Last year, he was nowhere near his best. This has changed. Contador has proven to be very strong in 2014, finishing in the top two in all the races he has taken part in this season.

In the Critérium du Dauphiné, he was the only rider able to follow Chris Froome uphill before the Sky rider crashed and ruined his chances of overall success. Contador also showed his strength in Tirreno-Adriatico with an amazing solo attack on stage 5, leaving everybody — including the Giro d’Italia winner, Nairo Quintana — behind.

Contador is also strong in the time trials again. In Vuelta al Pais Vasco, he finished second, just seven seconds behind triple world champion Tony Martin. It’s difficult to say how he will perform in a time trial as long as the one we have in the Tour, but I expect him to do very well. I don’t think he can beat Chris Froome, but I’m sure he won’t lose two minutes like we saw last year.

Tour de France 2013 stage-18

Tinkoff-Saxo sends a strong team to support Alberto Contador. However, the team suffered a big loss when Roman Kreuziger was left off the startlist due to the UCI’s ill-timed investigation into his biological passport from 2011. Instead, the team has called in Rafal Majka. The strong Pole finished sixth overall in the Giro d’Italia this year.

All three of Contador’s strongest teammates in the mountains — Nicolas Roche, Michael Rogers and Rafal Majka — come into the Tour after a very tough Giro. This might be an issue later in the race with Team Sky’s Mikel Nieve and Richie Porte being much fresher.

Still, in the end it’s all up to Alberto Contador and Chris Froome to fight for the overall win. I think the fight will be very close this year, giving us one of the best Tours in decades. I wouldn’t be surprised if this race was won with less than 30 seconds in Paris.

Fighting for the podium

I count at least six riders with a solid chance of making the final podium this year. However, two of them definitely stand out. First up is Vincenzo Nibali (Astana).

After winning the Vuelta a España in 2010 and the Giro d’Italia in 2013, Nibali now hopes to win the last one of the three Grand Tours in 2014. Don’t forget he already finished third in the Tour de France in 2012. Compared to Chris Froome and Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali hasn’t showed much strength on the bike this season. Up until last weekend, Nibali was still without a win this year, with his best place being third in a stage of Tour of Oman in February.

Astana boss Alexandre Vinokourov wrote Nibali a letter regarding the Italian’s “poor performances”. Nibali’s answer was finishing seventh in Dauphiné and, two weeks later, winning the Italian championship, meaning he won’t be wearing Vinokourov’s Kazakh colours in the Tour. It was a strong reply from the proud Sicilian, who is allegedly 1kg lighter than when he won the Giro last year.

Personally, I’m confident Nibali is ready to fight for the podium and he too has a strong team to support him. He may not be able to follow Froome and Contador on the tough climbs, but Vincenzo Nibali never gives up. His aggressive way of riding is a gift to the race.

Italian Championships Cycling Road 2013

Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) is another very serious candidate. This might be the last chance Valverde will ever have to make podium in the Tour de France and he’s eager not to let it slip away. Last year, Valverde seemed to have a top place in the bag, but a mechanical problem in the crosswind had him losing nearly 10 minutes on stage 13. Without that loss, Valverde would have most like made the overall podium.

The Movistar leader hasn’t done many stage races this season, but he has been very strong all year. Since April, Valverde has only finished outside the top five in one of the nine races he took part in. Last Friday, he surprised quite a few when he won the Spanish time trial championship. Two days later, he finished second in the road race, giving Ion Izagirre the win as the two teammates finished together. A good way for Valverde to gain extra good-will from one of his most important helpers in the mountains in this Tour.

Like Nibali, I can’t see Valverde keeping up with Froome and Contador on the climbs. However, he’s definitely capable of following the rest of the podium contenders and maybe even dropping them as well. With Nairo Quintana set to take over as team leader at Movistar, Valverde knows he won’t get many more chances to shine in the Tour. I’m sure he will do everything he can to finally make it to the podium in Paris.

To me, Nibali and Valverde are a level above the rest of the podium candidates like Bauke Mollema (sixth last year), Andrew Talansky (10th last year), Tejay Van Garderen (fifth in 2012) and Jurgen van den Broeck (fourth in 2010 and 2012).

BMC will ride for Van Garderen at this year's Tour, but it's hard to see him challenging for a podium place.

BMC will ride for Van Garderen at this year’s Tour, but it’s hard to see him challenging for a podium place.

Bauke Mollema and Belkin will be eager to get a good result in their search for a new naming sponsor. I think they will take home a stage win and another top-eight place overall. Hopefully, it will be enough to secure the team’s future.

Andrew Talansky comes to the race full of confidence after winning the Dauphiné overall. The American usually gets stronger when the rest get tired. The final week is very demanding and being good against the clock, I think Talansky will finish this Tour on a good note.

Tejay Van Garderen crashed hard in Tour de Romandie and didn’t quite have enough power in the legs at the Dauphiné. However, he made a strong performance on the final mountain stage and I’m confident he will be a strong contender in this race.

Jurgen van den Broeck has had a lot of bad luck in recent years. If he can stay upright for three weeks, I think he will be a very serious candidate for the overall podium. However, unlike the rest of the mentioned contenders, his team isn’t set up around him. Van den Broeck has only one rider to help him in the mountains. This may hamper his chances.

Top10 contenders

This year’s Tour de France has many strong contenders for the general classification. As you can see above, many of the spots in top 10 are likely to be already taken. This leaves very few places for the rest to fight for.

Personally, I have very high expectations for Rui Costa (Lampre-Merida). Last year, before the World Champions in Florence, I said that Rui Costa was my top-five joker for the Tour de France in 2014. I was expecting him to fly under the radar and then rise in the final week. The very next day, however, he won the rainbow jersey. I think it’s safe to say that Rui Costa will be anywhere but under the radar in the Tour this year.

Rui Costa is unlikely to fly under the radar like he did last year, on his way to winning two stages.

Rui Costa is unlikely to fly under the radar like he did last year, on his way to winning two stages.

Looking at his results, this has probably been the best season ever for Rui Costa. However, he had to wait half a year to take his first win in the rainbow jersey. The strong Portuguese just won Tour de Suisse overall for the third year in a row, showing he has timed his condition perfectly for the Tour de France.

Usually, Rui Costa is best in the second part of the stages races. The first week in the Tour is for the sprinters, but like all the other GC riders, Rui Costa can’t afford to lose any time early in the race. He has to be 100% focused from the start in Yorkshire.

To help him achieve a great overall result, Rui Costa can count on strong support from José Serpa, Rafa Valls, Kristijan Durasek and last year’s Vuelta a España winner Chris Horner. Still, don’t forget that this is the first time ever that Rui Costa starts a Grand Tour fighting for the GC.

The best French hopes for a good overall result are Thibaut Pinot (FDJ.fr) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r-La Mondiale). Pinot finished 10th overall in 2012 but had to withdraw half through the race last year. FDJ.fr brings a strong team around their sprinter Arnaud Démare, meaning Pinot is left with only Arnold Jeannesson to help him in the mountains. In Tour de Suisse it was clear to see that Pinot was still lacking a little on the climbs. However, he produced a very strong time trial, showing that his shape is not bad at all.

Bardet finished 15th overall in the Tour last year. In this season, Bardet has kept his high level in all races. In Volta a Catalunya he dropped Contador, Quintana and Froome on stage 4 and in the Critérium du Daphiné, only Mikel Nieve was able to drop the young Frenchman on Courchevel the final day. In both races Romain Bardet finished in the top five overall. The final time trial won’t help Bardet’s chances of overall success in this year’s Tour de France, but I’m sure he won’t have problems repeating last year’s strong performance.

stage 6 of Paris-Nice 2013

For other strong Top 10 candidates look to: Leopold König (NetApp-Endura), Dani Navarro (Cofidis), Michal Kwiatkowski (Omega Pharma-QuickStep), Mathias Frank (IAM) and Laurens Ten Dam (Belkin). Don’t forget the strong Trek trio of Haimar Zubeldia and the two Schleck brothers as well.

Joaquim ‘Purito’ Rodriguez would have been a strong podium contender in tip-top condition. However, the Spaniard is still not 100% after his crashes in Amstel Gold and the Giro d’Italia. Don’t expect much from him until the final week. He wil most likely use the first two weeks to find his legs and then try to go hard in the Pyrenees. I don’t think Purito will make a good overall result this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he won a couple of stages in the final week.

The sprinters

As mentioned, almost half of the stages in this year’s Tour de France are suited for the sprinters. Luckily, we have all the superstars at the start line. Last year, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-QuickStep) was pushed off the sprinting throne by Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) who won four stages, including the final one in Paris. Since then, Alessandro Petacchi and Mark Renshaw have joined OPQS to help Cavendish take back the crown.

However, so far this season, OPQS has had big problems making their lead-outs run smoothly. Cavendish can no longer just win on his incredible kick. The new era of power sprints has seen Cavendish start working out in the gym, lifting weights for the first time in his career. It will be interesting to see if this will help him against the lethal lead-out train from Giant-Shimano.

Four years ago, the Dutch team announced they wanted to build the best lead-out train in the world. Back then, many — myself included — thought it sounded a bit overambitious. However, building the best lead-out train is exactly what Giant-Shimano has done. It doesn’t really matter which riders they pick for the races, the black and white jerseys always show up near the front with two or three kilometres to go.

With Tom Veelers, Albert Timmer, John Degenkolb and Koen de Kort — whom I still see as the best leadout rider in the world right now — Marcel Kittel couldn’t ask for better help. To me, the strong German is the number one favourite for all bunch sprints in this race. Even when his lead-out doesn’t work, Kittel has proven capable of winning despite horrible starting positions.

Marcel Kittel won four stages at last year's Tour de France, including the final stage in Paris.

Marcel Kittel won four stages at last year’s Tour de France, including the final stage in Paris.

Andre Greipel is the third of the big three top sprinters in this year’s Tour de France. Lotto-Belisol sends a strong team to support him with Jurgen Roelandts, Marcel Sieberg and Greg Henderson as his final leadout. Greipel is the most winning rider in the world this season and comes to the Tour with high morale after winning the German championship last weekend. Last year, Greipel won one stage and finished second on two other occasions. I wouldn’t be surprised if he repeated it this year.

On a level just below Cavendish, Kittel and Greipel we find guys like Alexander Kristoff (Katusha), Peter Sagan (Cannondale) and the new French champion Arnaud Démare (FDJ), who’s making his Tour de France debut. Not to forget Sacha Modolo who’s also taking on his first Tour de France after a strong debut on the WorldTour with Lampre-Merida.

Personally, I’m very much looking forward to seeing what another Tour de France debutant, Michael ‘Bling’ Matthews, can do. After winning two stages in the Vuelta a España 2013, the young Australian came to the Giro d’Italia this year with ambitions of winning a stage and wearing Maglia Rosa. He managed to do both. Now Matthews has his aim set on the Tour, hoping to join the club of stage winners in all three Grand Tours.

Michael Matthews won stage 6 of this year's Giro and will be hoping to add a stage win at the this year's Tour de France to his palmares.

Michael Matthews won stage 6 of this year’s Giro and will be hoping to add a stage win at the this year’s Tour de France to his palmares.

It would be quite remarkable if he can manage it, as it would be achieved in three consecutive debut Grand Tours (Vuelta 2013, Giro 2014 and Tour 2014). Stage 2 seems perfect for Matthews, meaning that if he can do well on stage 1, he has a solid chance of wearing the yellow jersey in Sheffield on Sunday.

Matthews has worked hard on his climbing skills this season. He proved this already in Paris-Nice, when he was the first rider to chase down super-climber Carlos Betancur on a section of 15% gradient. In the Giro, Bling won the chaotic stage 6 to Montecassino (8.5km uphill finish). Don’t be surprised if Michael Matthews wins one of the hilly stages later in the race!

In the fight for the green jersey, I see Peter Sagan at a level above the rest. He will be able to gain points on the medium mountain stages where Mark Cavendish and Marcel Kittel will be nowhere near the front. Michael Matthews might be able to challenge Sagan in these stages, but aiming at the green jersey is probably too much to ask for from the young Australian already. My personal outsider for the green jersey is Alexander Kristoff. The big Norwegian is much better on the hills than you might think.

Who’s your tip for the 2014 Tour de France? Who do you expect to dominate the sprints? Leave your thoughts below.

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