Who will win the yellow jersey? In the most exciting Grand Tour in recent memory, Jack Houghton thinks the Slovenian market leaders should be opposed...
"News just in... Sam Bennett doesn't go to the Tour. In his place... Mark Cavendish..."
What's the route like?
Although retaining plenty of mountain splendour, it's not the climbing fest that has become the norm for Grand Tours in recent years. Six mountain stages see three summit finishes, with the highlights being a double-ascent of Mont Ventoux on Stage 11, a summit finish on Saint-Lary on Stage 17, and a short Stage 18 that features the Tourmalet.
Flat time trials (totalling 58km) on Stages 5 and 20 might be of more significance for the Yellow Jersey contenders, though, setting up a fascinating narrative between those who are out-and-out climbers, and those who are more versatile. Those able to rely on their time trialing can afford to be more conservative in the mountains, whereas others will need to grab all the time there that they can. It's a course designed to promote exciting racing.
It also has plenty of interest outside the fight for the General Classification. Rolling terrain on the first two stages will likely see a puncheur in Yellow (and will almost certainly produce a hard luck story or two among the main contenders), a few stages offer the tantalising prospect of crosswinds, and the sprinters can conceivably contest eight finishes.
Who are the favourites?
The race - and the market - pits the strength-in-depth of Ineos Grenadiers against the standout performers of last season: Tadej Podacar (2.789/5) and Primoz Roglic (3.7011/4).
It's hard to pick holes in Podacar. His performance in the decisive 2020 time-trial to La Planche des Belles Filles was spectacular, as was his constantly attacking style on the mountain stages that preceded it. It's easy to forget that, had he not lost time in the crosswinds on Stage 7, he would have likely taken an easier overall victory.
This season, he has won the UAE Tour, Tirreno-Adriatico, Liege-Baston-Liege, and his home Tour of Slovenia. On top of this, he brings a much-strengthened team to this year's edition of the race. His relative weakness - if he has one - is his time trialing on flatter courses. He'll need a healthy lead to be confident going into Stage 20.
Roglic is the most consistent Grand Tour rider of the last few years, boasting two Vuelta wins and podiums in France and Italy. He is also versatile, winning one-day races, contesting punchier finishes, and boasting one the best time trialing records in the peloton. This year's course plays to his strengths, but there is still the sense that he can have a day of vulnerability on the very highest mountain stages.
Which leaves Ineos Grenadiers. And given that they bring three Grand Tour winners to the race, in Geraint Thomas (7.206/1), Richard Carapaz (12.0011/1) and Teo Geoghagen Hart (65.0064/1), as well as the ultra-experienced Richie Porte (36.0035/1), who came third last year, it really is a case of seeing them as a unit, because it's impossible to decipher who the likely team leader is.
All of them, too, bring good form. Thomas won the Tour de Romandie early in the season, Porte won the Dauphine, Carapaz looked comfortable in the Tour de Suisse (except for a dreadful mountain time trial performance), and Geoghagen Hart has looked solid in his domestique duties.
Quite how Ineos will play this Tour de France is hard to predict, but given they have kept promising - and have delivered so far - a more swashbuckling approach to racing, expect them to set the race alight as they try to unsettle the market leaders.
Who are the most likely outsiders?
Rumours abound that new father Julian Alaphilippe (46.0045/1) will target the Yellow Jersey this year. For this to be a realistic target, though, will require a more mature rider who measures his effort across the three weeks. Whether he'll be able to resist what seems a constant urge to light races up is doubtful, especially as the opening two stages seem to have been created with him in mind. But then maybe parenthood will have calmed him.
Looking down the market, there are plenty of riders who may feature on individual stages, including Miguel Angel Lopez (50.0049/1), Rigoberto Uran (100.0099/1), and Enric Mas (150.00149/1), but it's hard to see how any of them can maintain the form needed over three weeks to win in Paris. Of that trio, Uran is perhaps the most interesting, after a resurgent performance at the Tour de Suisse.
Given that it's hard to ignore a four-time Tour de France winner in a preview of the race, I should probably mention Chris Froome (300.00299/1). His recovery from injuries sustained in a horrible crash in 2019 has been remarkable, but by his own admission, he is currently short of the form needed to be competitive here. Hopefully, he will be able to make a surprise appearance at the front end of a mountain stage, but he's not a realistic contender for Yellow.
What about the likely stage winners?
News just in... Sam Bennett doesn't go to the Tour. In his place... Mark Cavendish. Given how unlikely that seemed just a fortnight ago, perhaps it's time to start backing Froomey for overall honours and supporting Cav for every sprint stage, because it seems that anything can happen. Cavendish is there on merit, however, picking up stages in lower profile races at the start of the season before beating most of the world's best in Belgium last week.
The sprint deck is likely to be stacked at this year's Tour, though. Even with Bennett's absence, Caleb Ewan, Tim Merlier, Peter Sagan and Arnaud Demare will make all the flat days hotly contested. Of those riders, Demare is perhaps most interesting. Left out of last year's race, he went on to stamp himself as the best sprinter of the season and will want to prove a point on cycling's biggest stage.
The opening two days will see most of the focus on the puncheurs, the most exciting of whom is Mathieu van der Poel, who showed a disregard for others of his type at the Tour de Suisse. He's likely to be the one to beat on Stage 1.
More of that in our Stage One preview, though, which will go online on Friday night. For now, the focus is on the General Classification, and the value call is to lay the two favourites, while we work out which of the Grenadiers is the most likely winner.
*Odds correct at the time of writing
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