Froome the firm favourite as Tour needs an honest hero
Today in Yorkshire, 198 men set out on a road of torment and pain. For three long weeks their bodies will be asked questions few of us could ever comprehend.
Just as every Tour de France has been, the 2014 version will be brutal. It's what makes this bike race so special. And as they depart from Leeds with a total of 3,664 kilometres to be covered before reaching Paris on July 27, I find it remarkable that despite knowing ultimate glory is the destiny of just two competitors, the rest are prepared to suffer to such extremities.
Barring accidents, the reality is the 2014 Tour de France is a two-man race. As they roll into Paris in late July it's almost certain the maillot jaune will rest upon the shoulders of either Tinkoff-Saxo's Alberto Contador or those of Chris Froome of Team Sky. For the first time since 2007, the Tour is starting in Britain and the riders are likely to draw huge crowds as they navigate northern England for the opening two stages while the third stage promises a high-speed sprint finish on the Mall in London.
British-based Team Sky have controversially left Bradley Wiggins (Olympic champion and 2012 Tour de France winner) out of their starting line-up. Dave Brailsford, Team Sky's sporting director, has made the call to omit Wiggins, which despite his huge success with Team Sky will surely see his departure from the team at the end of the year. As a result all eyes fix on one man – Froome.
For the 2013 winner – a Kenyan, born of British parents, riding for a British team starting his defence on British soil – the script is surely written... or is it?
Froome has not had the ideal preparation both on and off the bike coming into this year's Tour. He has a mixed year of results, winning the Tour of Oman in February, skipping Liege-Bastogne-Liege due to a chest infection, winning the Tour of Romandie before a poor result in his final preparation race the Criterium du Dauphine. Froome started well at the Dauphine but after suffering a crash on the third stage, he finished a lowly 12th and well behind the second man eyeing the yellow jersey in this year' s race, Contador.
The Spaniard by contrast has had a solid if not spectacular build-up; finishing runner-up in the Tour of Algarve, Tour of Catalonia and the Dauphine while confidently riding to victory in both the Tour of Basque Country and Tirreno-Adriatico.
Contador's early season form at the start of 2014 looks to be in contrast to that of 2013. He appears to have put his legal battle over a positive test for clenbuterol – which saw him stripped of the 2010 Tour de France and 2011 Giro d'Italia victories – well behind him.
Froome and Team Sky on the other hand have seen the dark clouds of whisper and questions appear on the horizon, ever since his skipping of Liege-Bastogne-Liege. After the first stage of the Tour of Romandie, persistent coughing led Team Sky's lead doctor to apply to cycling's governing body, the UCI, for a Therapeutic Use Exemption (TUE) for the corticosteroid prednisone.
Froome, an asthmatic, believed the inflammation brought about due to the chest infection, which had prevented him racing in Liege, was thought to be the underlying cause of the coughing issue. The TUE was granted and five days later Froome went on to win the race. Significant questions are being asked now regarding Team Sky's ethical stance with regard to their use of TUEs – to date not all of those appear to have been answered satisfactorily.
The key battleground for the two main protagonists will come when the race reaches the big mountains on Stage 10. Froome won the mountain finish of Les Planche Des Belles Filles in 2012 while riding support to Wiggins.
If his credentials as Tour favourite, at current odds of 5/6, are to be believed, then a repeat performance is expected.
Stage 14 sees the riders go over 2,000 metres twice and takes in the highest point of the race in the Col d'Izoard at 2,360 metres.
It is Stage 18 however that I am most eagerly anticipating. If the gap between Froome and Contador is tight, this stage will provide the backdrop to an explosive showdown.
The Col du Tourmalet will provide the opportunity for the leading team to pile the pressure on before descending to face the final showdown on Hautacam.
This 15.8km-long climb, rising 1,520 metres over an average gradient of 7pc is where I expect Froome and Contador to reveal who will win this year's Tour de France. However, it would be remiss of me to suggest the Tour will only be about two men.
The sprinters will be out in force in the early part, with Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quick-step) sure to be looking to extend his incredible 25 stage wins. Marcel Kittel (Giant-Shimano) is sure to be contesting, as will Andre Greipel (Lotto-Belisol) and Peter Sagan (Cannodale).
Stage 5 promises to be somewhat of a one-day classic as the riders traverse nine sections of pave (cobbles) in what should to be an enthralling day for the spectators.
Avoiding the inevitable accidents along sections of the Paris-Roubaix route will be paramount. Nicolas Roche will be working to keep his team leader Contador close to the front of the peloton and out of trouble.
Roche has just claimed his first stage race victory as a professional. He and Michael Rogers will be Contador's two chief lieutenants in the battle with Team Sky and Froome.
There are no other Irish riders involved – Dan Martin is ruled out with a broken collarbone sustained in a crash in the Giro d'Italia, while Philip Deignan and Sam Bennett have not made the final Tour selections for Team Sky and NetApp Endura.
So as cycling's greatest show rolls out of Leeds, and three weeks of enthralling racing begins, the total of 3.5 billion viewers expected to watch on TV suggest that despite the troubles of the sport over the past decade, we are still fascinated by this spectacle of human endeavour.
Chris Froome starts the race as champion with No 1 on his back. I suspect he will reach Paris in the same position and claim his second Tour victory. He is a man who claims to have achieved his personal successes by endeavour alone.
I hope for the sports sake he is telling the truth. For now more than ever cycling needs an honest hero.