With no defending champion in the 2013 Tour de France, in its centenary year the worldâ€™s biggest bike race looks set to be wide-open - and potentially with a highly unpredictable knock-on effect on the UCI WorldTour.
2012 Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins (SkyProCycling) is not taking part, which could indirectly create an opportunity for his team-mate Chris Froome, second overall last year, to take yellow in Paris on July 21st. But there are plenty more candidates for the final triumph, including 2011 Tour winner Cadel Evans (BMC Racing), Alberto Contador (Saxo-Tinkoff), former UCI WorldTour winner Joaquim Rodriguez (Katusha) and Andy Schleck (RadioShack Leopard). And that is just the battle for the overall classification.
In the bunch sprints, Mark Cavendish (Omega Pharma-Quck Step) will be looking to add to his 23 Tour stage wins - a record for any sprinter -Â whilst Peter Sagan (Cannondale Pro Cycling), the winner of last yearâ€™s points classification and of two stages, will be doing his utmost to stop him. Other names to watch include Matt Goss (Orica GreenEdge), Marcel Kittel (Team Argos-Shimano) and Cavendishâ€™s former team-mate, German national champion AndrÃ© Greipel (Lotto-Belisol).
Cavendish will have a first, and almost unique, opportunity to take the yellow jersey of race leader when racing gets underway in Corsica on Saturday with a flat, fast, finish at Bastia - the first time the Tour has had neither a prologue nor an uphill finish since 1966. But as soon as stage two, which takes the race diagonally across central Corsica, the mountains begin to kick in, and the top names for the overall must surely begin to move to the fore.
Other key dates for the general classification battles are stage fourâ€™s 25 kilometre team time trial at Nice, stage eightâ€™s first summit finish at Ax-3-Domaines in the Pyrenees and stage 11â€™s middle distance individual time trial.
Althugh a second, hillier time trial follows eight days later in the Alps, there can be no doubt that the second half of the race is one made for the climbers. The Mont Ventoux, Franceâ€™s single toughest mountain ascent, is tackled on stage 15 - and that is a climb which never fails to influence a Tourâ€™s outcome. And the four days in the Alps that follow, with a double ascent of Alpe Dâ€™Huez on stage 18 arguably acting as the raceâ€™s emotional highpoint, will surely see at least one major mountain specialist come to the fore again.
However, allrounders like Froome, victorious in four of the five stage races in which he has taken part this season - including the Tour of Romandie and CritÃ©rium du DauphinÃ© UCI WorldTour events - will have a big say in the raceâ€™s outcome. In the UCIWorldTour, meanwhile, with leader Fabian Cancellara (RadioShack-Leopard) absent in the Tour, his rivals will have an excellent chance to close the gaps and perhaps oust the Swiss star from the top spot altogether.
Best placed to do so is Sagan, second overall and lagging just 22 points behind Cancellara, whose total of 351 points will forcibly remain unchanged in July. Froome, may be at a greater distance, in fourth place with 311 points. But both he and team-mate Richie Porte, currently fifth with 305, could even leapfrog ahead of Sagan -Â given the greater number of points on offer to successful overall classification riders in the Tour when compared to stage winners. And indeed, that is what happened last year, when Wiggins victory in the Tour, and 266 UCIWorldTour points that went with that victory, saw the Briton move from third to first overall.
The nations classification, led by Spain with 811 points ahead of Colombia with 766 and Italy with 720, looks marginally more stable, given the three top nations are some distance ahead of Great Britain, in fourth spot with 622.Â However, Spainâ€™s multiple overall candidates - Contador, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team), RodriguezÂ - and Colombiaâ€™s impressive showing so far this year make it unlikely either nation will give ground easily to their rivals, and it will be tough to predict what happens there.
The most clear-cut UCIWorldTOur classification of all continues to be the teams, with Sky ProCyclingâ€™s total of 1062 putting the British squad nearly 300 points clear of closest pursuer Katusha, with 769. If Sky seem all but invulnerable at this point, there could be a lot of big changes further down the table:Â Spaniards Movistar are just 20 points behind the Russian team in third place, whilst the teams ranked from fifth - Garmin-Sharp - to 13th - Cannondale - have less than 100 points difference between them. The chances of a major reshuffle amongst those nine teams, then, are very high.
So the Tour de France could see everything from a change of leader in both the UCIWorldTour individual and nations classifications to a complete restructuring of the ranking amongst the lower-placed teams. And that is not all:Â the Tour de France may finish on July 21st in Paris, but the battle for the UCI WorldTour will continue right the way through to the end of the season.