BRUSSELS • Defending champion Geraint Thomas will face mountains galore and a wide cast of rivals, even within his own camp, when the three-week Tour de France begins on the cobbled streets of Brussels today.
To celebrate a centenary of the iconic race leader's yellow jersey, organisers chose the Belgian capital, home of all-time great Eddy Merckx. A bike-mad crowd is expected to give the riders a raucous send-off 50 years after the great Belgian won the first of his five Tours.
Thursday's city-centre parade of the 22 eight-man teams was cheered all the way along the route with fans mobbing riders.
Ineos co-leaders Thomas and Egan Bernal were even given CIA-style running security as other star riders good-naturedly signed scrapbooks and posed for selfies.
Briton Thomas has left his preparations a little tight. He suffered a setback with a fright on the Tour de Suisse last month when he fell heavily and took a knock to the head.
Having teammate Bernal, the 22-year-old Colombian revelation, alongside him may play into his hands by causing a smokescreen to rivals. Thomas, a great time-trialist, has proved he can fight in the mountains, thanks to his strong team.
Four-time winner Chris Froome misses out this year after a bone-crunching fall last month that blew the field wide open.
The team chief of Spanish side Movistar, Eusebio Unzue, has described the remaining peloton as "a flock of sheep without a shepherd".
"Without Chris Froome, the Tour is not the same race," Tour chief Christian Prudhomme agreed, with the British team having won six of the last seven titles since Bradley Wiggins clinched their first.
Another massive loss for British fans for the July 6-28 event is the absence of seasoned sprinter Mark Cavendish, who won 30 stages but has been struck down by the energy-sapping Epstein-Barr virus.
In the battle for the yellow jersey, Froome's long-time deputy Thomas takes centre stage, the popular Welshman attacking a mountain-packed Tour with Bernal also as his main rival.
Bernal, who won with panache the Tour de Suisse, will become the youngest post-war Tour de France winner and the first Colombian winner if he outstrips Thomas in the manner which the Welshman himself unexpectedly did to Froome last season.
But there are as many candidates for victory as there are mountains.
Danish late bloomer Jakob Fuglsang, Britain's Adam Yates and his twin Simon, Froome's long-suffering second fiddle Nairo Quintana, and Italian master tactician and former winner Vincenzo Nibali are all licking their lips in anticipation.
France itself, bereft of a Tour champion since Bernard Hinault in 1985, also has contenders in Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, who both spent their youth shuttling up and down mountains.
"It's been a while, but I've got that winning feeling," said Pinot. "I can't wait for the race to start."
Current speed-king champion Elia Viviani of Italy is widely tipped to bid for the green sprint jersey, but he will face competition from triple world champion and crowd favourite, Slovak Peter Sagan.
This Tour is remarkable for its altitude, climbing over 2,000m seven times, with three summit finishes at altitude in the Pyrenees, Vosges and the Alps. It is in the Alps, at the very end of the 3,480km Tour, where things will be decided with an unprecedented three consecutive, ultra-mountainous challenges to test any potential champion to the extreme.
Three to watch
EGAN BERNAL (INEOS)
He is not only a gifted climber but also a solid all-rounder with a knack of closing out victories with seemingly hidden reserves.
But, at just 22, it remains to be seen if the success he has garnered in the Tour of California, the Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse can be reproduced at the much longer three-week Tour de France, in which he makes only his second appearance.
NAIRO QUINTANA (MOVISTAR)
Long in the shadow of four-time winner Chris Froome, he has finished on the Tour podium three times, but ended last year's edition in 10th having suffered a costly fall on stage one.
This year's route will play to the pure climber's strengths due to reduced time-trialling and, crucially, seven ascents above 2,000 metres, three of them summit finishes on what might be his last real roll of the dice at 29 and his seventh season at Movistar.
VINCENZO NIBALI (BAHRAIN MERIDA)
Known as the shark because of his ability to take out opponents at key moments, he almost pulled off a fourth Grand Tour win in May when he came second in the Giro d'Italia.
With just four weeks to recover since then, Nibali is an outsider to clinch a second Tour de France, but the 34-year-old can climb with the best, is an accomplished time trialist, possibly the best downhill rider in the game, and will surely target at least the podium.