The big three sprinters are hard to separate, writes Jack Houghton, but there are few betting certainties so certain as seeing Peter Sagan in Green in Paris...
"Doubting Mark Cavendish is akin to doubting a Muhammed Ali comeback - the doubters usually end up having their uncertainty shoved down their throats, usually in the post-stage interview by an ebullient Cav..."
Who will win the Green Jersey?
Peter Sagan. He is currently trading at [1.60] which, in effect, is less about his chances of winning the Points Classification, and more about whether he can complete the tour because, if he does the latter, the former is a given.
Contrary to how it is sometimes marketed, the Green Jersey is more an award for consistency stage-after-stage, rather than for the best out-and-out sprinter. Perhaps ironically, the scoring system was changed in 2011 to try and give the bunch sprinters more of a chance and make that marketing the reality; however, then along came Peter Sagan, who rarely picks up a bunch sprint, but nonetheless won the Points Classification in 2012, on his debut in the race, a feat he has repeated every year since.
In each of those years, Sagan has amassed over 400 points, often 150 points and more ahead of his rivals, capitalising on his breath-taking versatility: finishing close-up on flat bunch sprints; contesting punchy uphill finishes; getting in breakaways on hillier stages to hoover up intermediate sprint points; and scoring as many points as his main rivals even when they are present to contest those intermediate sprints on flat stages.
Mathematically speaking, a more conventional sprinter would have to win six stages, as well as fighting for all the intermediate points on flat days, to get close to Sagan's typical points haul. Given that there are only eight sprint stages in this year's Tour, even odds of [1.60] look value.
Who will win the bunch sprints?
There are question marks around the dominant trio of sprinters in recent Tours. Mark Cavendish, unquestionably the best sprinter of his generation, was resurgent in last year's race and at the Olympics, but his absence for three months of this season - wiped out by glandular fever - is hardly the preparation you'd want for someone seeking to add the four stage wins needed to equal Eddie Merckx's record.
Cavendish came second to Sam Bennett in the final stage of the Tour of Slovenia and survived the British Championship road race at the weekend to finish down the field. That doesn't smack of a rider in peak condition, and there is always the question of whether his preparations for the Omnium at the Olympics helped his road racing.
Has he followed the same pattern of preparation this year? There are lots of doubts, but doubting Mark Cavendish is akin to doubting a Muhammed Ali comeback - the doubters usually end up having their uncertainty shoved down their throats, usually in the post-stage interview by an ebullient Cav.
Andre Greipel is a superb sprinter, who has had his usually consistent start to the year, and who will probably pick up a stage at some point. However, his chances of a bumper haul - like those achieved in 2012 and 2015 - are slim. Those years saw Kittel absent and Cavendish out-of-form, suggesting that Greipel is the weaker of the triumvirate. This, added to the howling tactical decisions he can often make, suggest Greipel's chances for stage wins will be limited.
Marcel Kittel has already amassed eight wins this year, signalling that he is back to his best. Many thought that prior to last year's Tour, though, before he was royally unpicked by Cavendish. This year's Stage 2 into Liege will set the sprinting tone for the race: it sees a 3km-long finishing-straight and will establish who is in the ascendancy.
Fighting for recognition behind the big three it will be worth keeping an eye on two up-and-coming sprinters; Bryan Coquard and Dan McLay. I expect both to pop up for a stage victory this year, most likely at big odds. The difficulty will be working out which stage, although Coquard tends to do best relative to his rivals when the finishes are more technical or difficult, which might see him successful on Stage 4 into Vittel.
Who will be the King of the Mountains?
The Polka Dot Jersey is always the hardest to predict because those chasing General Classification honours can often feature prominently due to high-scoring summit finishes. For example, Chris Froome, almost without noticing, picked up the Mountains Classifications on route to his second Yellow Jersey in 2015. This year, though, with fewer summit finishes, riders targeting the honour should not be disappointed by a GC-imposter. Rafal Majka, then, at [8.00], looks great value to add to his last two wins in the competition. He is one of the best climbers in the peloton, with only his consistency preventing him from a concerted attempt to win the overall race, and will be hard to beat.
The danger to Majka is that one of those riders who come to France from the Giro D'Italia - as discussed in our General Classification preview - abort hopes of the Yellow Jersey and instead compete for some polka-dot compensation. Majka would not enjoy racing the likes of Nairo Quintana and Thibaut Pinot for such minor honours.
Who will be the best young rider?
Increasingly prominent in the planning of teams since its inception in 1975, the White Jersey, awarded to the best rider aged 25 and under at the start of the Tour, will be closely contested this year. As previewed here, though, Simon Yates ([2.80]) should be able to edge out odds-on favourite Louis Meintjes and Emanuel Buchmann ([8.00]). Marc Soler, who won White when finishing third at the Volta a Catalunya would have been an interesting contender, but looks to have been left out of the Movistar team for this year.
Back Peter Sagan at [1.60] for the Points Classification
Back Rafal Majka at [8.00] for the Mountains Classification
Back Simon Yates at [2.80] for the Young Riders Classification