Froome at the top
Last year, Briton had to play the role of sidekick to Bradley Wiggins; this time around he's the team leader and favourite to win the 100th edition of the Tour de France
Chris Froome has a chance to prove over the next three weeks what some suspected in 2012 - that he could have won last year's Tour de France if he hadn't had to give way for his teammate, Bradley Wiggins.
Now Wiggins is out injured and that makes the Kenyan-born Briton the favourite to triumph on a particularly mountainous route this year, one that should suit his climbing skills.
The 100th edition of the Tour began yesterday in Corsica - France's "Isle of Beauty" in the Mediterranean - the first time cycling's greatest race has set wheel to road in the land of Napoleon's birthplace.
Another key plotline: the shadow of Lance Armstrong. This is the first Tour since he was stripped of his record seven victories for doping, which he finally admitted after years of denials following a detailed report from the US Anti-Doping Agency. While Armstrong will have no involvement in this year's race, fans and media will have a close eye on performance-enhancing drug use in the peloton.
That 198-rider peloton, or pack, is to cover 3,479 kilometres over three weeks - 21 stages and two rest days - before an unusual nighttime finish on July 21 on the Champs-Elysees in Paris.
After three days on Corsica's winding, hilly roads, the Tour begins a counterclockwise run through mainland France along the Mediterranean, into the Pyrenees mountains, then up to Brittany and the fabled Mont-Saint-Michel island citadel before a slashing jaunt southeastward towards the Alps before entering the capital.
Long before they knew Wiggins would be out, race organisers gave relatively short shrift to the time trial - a race against the clock in which last year's champ excels. There was no opening-day time-trial. The team time-trial returns to the Tour in stage four. Two individual time-trials in stage 11 (33kms) and stage 17 (32kms) will count, but the latter one comes before three days in the Alps, which may have more impact on the race outcome.
Froome, the 28-year-old Team Sky leader, has ridden in two other Tours. His dazzling start to the season - winning four of the five races he started - and his second-place finish behind his British compatriot last year has put him on the top rung of Tour favourites.
Last year, Froome was a dutiful, if not always respectful, sidekick to Wiggins. Froome injected drama into the race - and fanned talk of rivalry - after he repeatedly outperformed Wiggins in the mountains. At one point, he even gestured at his Team Sky leader to catch up.
At the time, Wiggins acknowledged Froome had "talent", but also didn't know what it was like to feel the pressure of being the favourite.
Now is Froome's chance, and so far he has seemed to manage the pressure: He won the Tour of Oman, the Criterium International, the Tour of Romandie and the Criterium du Dauphine this year. His only loss this season? Second place in the Tirreno-Adriatico.
"It definitely gives me confidence that I've had the right build-up to the Tour, that I've had the right preparation for the Tour," he explained.
"It also gives my teammates a lot of confidence, that they're riding for a worthy cause, that they know I can deliver the result.
"But having said that, once we line up on the start line, every other race we've done early on this season folds away."
Two-time Tour winner Alberto Contador is seen as Froome's most likely challenger. The Spaniard's career hit a speed bump in 2010 when he tested positive for the banned fat-burning, muscle-building drug clenbuterol at the Tour - landing him a ban that forced him to sit out last year's race. He hasn't yet revived the fear and admiration that his sharp uphill accelerations once inspired.
American Tejay Van Garderen, who was a support rider for BMC leader Cadel Evans of Australia last year, will be among the rising stars to watch. The 24-year-old took home the white jersey awarded to the Tour's best young rider last year. The question now is whether 2011 Tour champion Evans, now 36, will be in contention enough for Van Garderen to stay in a support role: If not, he could be cut loose.
Froome, Contador and Van Garderen are potential contenders for the overall, general classification - or GC - victory because they fare well at both mountain-climbing and time trials, the two pillars of today's stage-race competitions. Other would-be contenders include Evans, Jurgen Van Den Broeck of Belgium, a two-time fourth-place finisher, Ryder Hesjedal of Canada - who crashed out last year - and Joaquim Rodriguez of Spain.
"There are quite a few guys whom I believe to be threats to the yellow jersey and until any of those guys lose time on the general classification they should be treated as potential yellow jersey wearers," said Froome.
"Contador is definitely not someone to write off from the group of contenders. I did come out on top in the time trial and in the mountain stages [in the Dauphine] against Contador but he cannot be ruled out."
The route is among the most mountainous in recent years. Stage 15 on July 14 - France's national Bastille Day holiday - features an uphill finish on the barren Mont Ventoux in Provence. The year's "Queen Stage" comes four days later in stage 18, with not one but two runs up the famed Alpe d'Huez.
Froome said Tour planners were "bordering on sadistic" with the selection of the Alpe d'Huez stage.
Before then, race contenders must emerge unscathed and in contention after the Pyrenees - including an uphill finish at Ax-3-Domaines ski station in stage eight - and avoid crashes that often bedevil the flat stages.
Look for nervous jostling and adrenaline-fuelled finishes on those days, when sprinters will shine. This year's sprinter crop is among the best in recent Tours, headlined by British superstar Mark Cavendish.
The 28-year-old native of the Isle of Man, garnering him the "Manx Missile" moniker among fellow Britons and cycling buffs, is the best sprinter of his generation. Cavendish already has 23 Tour stage victories, putting him fourth on the all-time list.
"I would like to wear the yellow jersey after the first stage in Corsica," said Cavendish, who is 11 stages shy of Eddy Merckx's all-time Tour record of 34.
"It's the only one of the three Grand Tours where I haven't worn the leader's jersey, so I'd like to do that."
Even as cycling tries to get past the doping legacy embodied by the Armstrong saga, the plague of drugs cheats continues.
In May, the Giro d'Italia was marred by three doping cases. Danilo di Luca, who won that race in 2007, tested positive for banned blood booster EPO - long the designer drug for riders. Fellow Italian Mauro Santambrogio, who won a stage this year, also tested positive for EPO. France's Sylvain Georges tested positive for Heptaminol, a banned stimulant.
Froome said the Armstrong revelations were "a big hit" to both fans and riders, who are now "all being painted with the same brush" - even if the sport is among the groundbreakers when it comes to anti-doping controls.
"I am confident in the testing that's in place," Froome said. "It's up to us to use this as an opportunity to show that the sport has changed and that this is a completely different cycling to that [Armstrong] era."
Associated Press, Reuters