Irish duo Martin and Bennett both setting sights on Tour stage glory
While double national champion Nicolas Roche will be absent from the Tour de France for the first time since 2009, there will be two Irish riders among the 189-strong peloton when the three week French odyssey gets underway from Mont-Saint-Michel today.
Sam Bennett made his Tour debut last year but having gone into the race under the weather, the 25-year-old Carrick-On-Suir sprinter found himself lying in last place overall towards the end of the second week.
A virus forced him to spend 18 hours of the second rest day asleep in bed, fully dressed to stay warm despite the 30 degree heat, and despite being so sick that he was urinating blood afterwards, Bennett continued until stage 17 when he was forced to abandon.
Although he has only one win under his belt so far this season, compared to four victories this time last year, Bennett goes into this Tour a lot fresher and he should feature at the end of today's opening flat run into Utah Beach in Normandy.
Riding for the German-based Bora Argon 18 team, Bennett is one of the quickest young sprinters around, and while he will be up against the likes of Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel in the Tour's bunch gallops, the withdrawal of France's Nacer Bouhanni this week will do his chances of claiming his first Tour stage win no harm.
With no big lead-out train, however, Bennett will have to rely on his Kiwi team-mate Shane Archibald to guide him through the maze of pointy elbows and rubber shoulders in today's finale, with the dream scenario of opening stage victory, and the yellow jersey, up for grabs.
Already a stage winner at the Tour, Dan Martin's recent form suggests he could be an outsider for a podium place if he can stay healthy.
Martin's climbing ability took him to a best ever Irish result of third overall at the final pre-Tour tune up, the Criterium du Dauphine, a couple of weeks ago.
Having finished just 19 seconds behind defending Tour champion and pre-race favourite Chris Froome at the Dauphine, a repeat Tour stage win or even victory in the King of the Mountains classification are well within his grasp this year.
A move to the Belgian-based Ettix Quickstep team last winter means he is fully supported by a strong and experienced line-up throughout the race, and having moved from Girona to the principality of Andorra recently to be able to train on the longer, higher climbs, Martin will have an eye on stage victory on the Tour's first mountain top finish next Sunday in Andorra-Arcalis.
If he has kept himself in contention up until then, he could well pull on the yellow jersey at the summit.
While defending champion Froome is looking to take his third Tour title in four years and has a Sky squad full of strong climbers to help him in that quest, he will face a strong challenge from last year's runner up Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Italian duo Fabio Aru and Vincenzo Nibali (Astana) and BCM duo Richie Porte and Tejay van Garderen.
"This year, the level of competition is that much higher," Froome says. "I feel as if I've got more rivals and the level of my rivals is that much higher. It's very much a climber's route, that's why we've selected this team around me - everyone here can climb.
"Having said that, we definitely can't take anything for granted. Anything can happen along the way and there's a lot of factors outside of our control."
Of Froome's many rivals, young guns Quintana and Aru look set to pose the most threat.
Having lost 1min 28secs on a windswept stage two last year, Quintana almost cracked Froome on the Tour's final climb to Alpe d'Huez and finished the race just 1'12" off the top step of the podium and the Colombian knows that a more difficult final week this year gives him a fighting chance of his first Tour victory.
"I've had similar preparation to last year," Quintana says. "I've learned to manage my efforts more, stay calm and know when you really have to be careful. It's a very mountainous route, with a lot of big climbs in the last week, which helps me a lot."
Aru is making his debut at the Tour but having won the Vuelta a Espana last year, after earlier finishing second at the Giro d'Italia, the 25-year-old Italian could be the surprise package of the race - if he gets full support from a team that also contains this year's Giro winner and 2014 Tour winner Nibali.
"I don't know my limits or my level at the moment but we're calm because I've worked hard. I'm sure we can do well together, even if it's hard to be specific before the start," he says.
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