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Froome and Cavendish are geared up to make it a Tour de force for Britain

By Alasdair Fotheringham

The Tour de France kicks off today in Normandy with a chance for Mark Cavendish simultaneously to take both his 27th Tour stage win and the first yellow jersey of his career - and it may well end on July 24 in Paris with another 31-year-old Briton, Chris Froome, capturing the maillot jaune of Tour winner for a third time.

For Froome, the defending champion and outstanding favourite, wearing yellow on the Champs Elysées in three weeks time would make him the first rider to take back-to-back Tours since Miguel Indurain in 1994 and 1995.

Furthermore, just seven riders have ever managed to win the Tour more than twice, and Froome's third in four years would thus place the Team Sky leader among the greatest Tour riders in history.

However, Froome himself warned that this could be his toughest ever Tour to win, for all the Kenyan-born Briton starts the race in excellent condition and with a dauntingly powerful line-up of support riders in Team Sky at his disposal.

Problem number one is that rivals have multiplied in the last two years, as a new, young generation of contenders moves towards the Tour's centre-stage.

Nairo Quintana, the 25-year-old Colombian climber who had Froome against the ropes in the last Alpine stage of the 2015 Tour and already twice second overall, is one relatively new face, but widely agreed to be Froome's most dangerous opponent.

France's Thibaut Pinot is an impressively strong climber whose time trialling, previously a notable chink in his armour, has massively improved in the last six months.

Yet another unpredictable young gun will be Italian Fabio Aru, a newcomer to the Tour but with a fearsome reputation for climbing.

All three, in a course which is bursting at the seams with mountain stages, particularly in the third week, will do their utmost to trouble Froome.

At the other end of the age spectrum Spain's Alberto Contador, now a veteran 33-year-old but widely rated as the best stage racer of his generation, may have lost some of his climbing power in recent years.

But with two Tour de France wins already in his saddlebag, the Tinkoff leader has a well-earned reputation as a fearless attacker.

The recent Giro d'Italia winner and 2014 Tour de France champion Vincenzo Nibali, 31, is another hugely experienced opponent.

Others like Froome's former Sky team-mate Richie Porte, America's top stage racer Tejay Van Garderen and France's Romain Bardet may not have Contador's or Nibali's impressive back catalogue of Grand Tour victories, but will be equally quick to undermine Froome's authority should they have an opportunity.

The setpiece battles for outright victory in the Tour will start in just under a week, when the peloton tackles the first major Pyrenean climb, the Aspin, prior to a fast descent to Lac de Payolle.

From then on, summit finishes and mountain stages in Andorra, on the Mont Ventoux, the Jura and, above all, four days in the Alps are all stages marked down in red for the overall contenders.

But if the mountain stages represent golden opportunities to win the Tour, the possibility of losing it comes as soon as this weekend's opening brace of stages in rural Normandy.

Run on largely flat and exposed terrain, the risk of crashes on narrow, twisting country lanes where nerves and energy levels are particularly high, and the rainshowers forecast for today will only heighten the tension.

Factor in a stiff seabreeze or two and the chances are that a top contender could find themselves on the wrong side of a split in the peloton, as happened to Quintana and Nibali in last year's Tour on the first stage across the flatlands and sea defences of western Holland.

The time lost there by Quintana, 90 seconds, arguably cost him the Tour, which he lost to Froome by 62.

Tomorrow's stage to Cherbourg has a serious sting in the tail, too, a short but explosively steep little climb, the Cote de la Glacerie, in the final three kilometres.

As for Cavendish, his opportunity to lead the Tour for the first time will come in what could be the race's first bunch sprint finish today, at Utah Beach, scene of one of the D-Day landings in 1944.

With much of his training currently focused towards his Olympic track challenges next month, the Dimension Data sprinter says he is uncertain of how this build-up for Rio will have affected his road-racing form and, furthermore, the last time Cavendish won the first bunch sprint of the Tour was in 2012.

But given the Briton's colossal win rate in past Tours - by far the Tour's most successful sprinter, only Bernard Hinault and Eddy Merckx have more stage victories in the race's 103-year-history - it would be unwise to rule Cavendish out.

British interest includes Geraint Thomas, Steve Cummings, Adam Yates and Daniel McLay, while Irishman Dan Martin is also in the mix.

Belfast Telegraph


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