The 101st edition of the Tour de France is going to be an epic.
All the ingredients are there. The start in Yorkshire next weekend, a stage in central London, a brutal section of cobbles inside the first week, three mountain ranges with five altitude finishes plus the promise of a classic head-to-head for the yellow jersey.
For the first time in a long time the route is exciting from start to finish. The first week is normally flat and fairly dull. However, this year there will be no snore fest of an opening prologue or a team time-trial and it will be exciting from the off.
In recent years the organisers of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España have shaken things up to make the grand tours exciting from the start. This year looks like the one where the Tour de France fights back.
There may be nine stages between the start in Yorkshire and the first serious climb up La Planche des Belles Filles, yet the first half of the Tour is packed with interesting routes to challenge the sprinters and stage hunters, and keep the favourites on their toes.
It may not have the plethora of brutal finishes like last year's Vuelta but there are still five mountain top finishes, which is a lot for the Tour, and the route features climbing in the Vosges, Alps, and then the Pyrenees.
For just the second time the Grand Depart is in Britain. It's the fourth time the great race has visited these shores. Their timing is perfect. Cycling in this country is more popular than ever, fuelled by our success on the track and with the last two winners of the yellow jersey.
Yorkshire is relishing its time in the spotlight and my spies at Sky Bet HQ in Leeds tell me the area is absolutely buzzing. The roads are going to be mobbed and the atmosphere electric. I imagine the office will be out in force to watch the race and cheer on Team Sky, and I'm told Mike Shinners is a decent climber in his own right while my editor David Ord is more of a sprinter.
The opening stage from Leeds to Harrogate would suit the latter as it's likely to end in a group sprint. A Mark Cavendish day. The first fireworks will go off on stage two from Leeds to Sheffield. This will be a day full of danger for the GC contenders. The route is lumpy from start to finish. The favourites will be on red alert as they approach the infamous Jenkin Road, which is a sharp ascent only 5km from the finish. They will have to climb for only about half a mile but it is brutally steep and could easily produce the first time differences.
Phillipe Gilbert will probably trade as favourite but Simon Gerrans is the man to be on. Orica-Greenedge could cause havoc here. Gerrans is having a great season and can be backed at 2/1 to win any stage, which looks a great bet. He wore yellow in France last year and could well do so again. He thrives on short, sharp ascents and can out-sprint a small group if they stay away after Jenkin Road. Keep a close eye on his teammate Michael Matthews too. More on him later.
The day that follows is all about London and its landmarks, which will provide a spectacular finish.
Mark Cavendish will hope for a better outcome than on the Mall in the Olympic Games, when he drifted in as an also ran. He was a marked man that day and did not have a big enough team to fight off all the challenges. It's much easier to keep the race together in the Tour and this should be another episode in the Cavendish-Greipel-Kittel battle.
The cobbles on July 9th could really put the cat amongst the pigeons. They've taken 15km of the toughest cobble sections from Paris-Roubaix. They start after 87km and the final section comes only 7km from the end of Stage 5 so it will be frantic as teams try to protect their leaders and keep them near the front of the peloton. Carnage looks guaranteed. Cobbles are an accepted part of bike racing but are a nightmare for the skinny, light mountain goats (like Michael Shinners). Their sole aim will be to stay upright and ensure no time losses. In 2010 when a cobble section was included, one of the race favourites, Frank Schleck, fell and fractured his shoulder. The GC contenders won't win the Tour here but they can certainly lose it.
In contrast, Paris-Roubaix specialists will get their chance to shine. Fabian Cancellara will be in his element and is sure to be favourite to win the stage. However, a recent high-speed crash has upset his preparation and the great man will be opposable. It will be interesting to see if Team Sky release Geraint Thomas from his duties looking after Chris Froome to try and win the stage.
The climbers and favourites for the General Classification will come out to play for the first time in the Vosges Mountains on Stage 9. By the end of Stage 10 to the famous mountain-top finish at La Planche Des Belles Filles we will have a much better idea of who will win the 2014 Tour. This is where Chris Froome won the stage and Bradley Wiggins took the yellow jersey in 2012. The Alps, Pyrenees, which includes an immense day which takes in the Tourmalet and finishes on Hautacam, plus a 54km time-trial follow on what is a brilliant route and a thrilling ride to Paris.
Chris Froome (10/11 with Sky Bet)
That route looks tailor-made for last year's winner. And up until a couple of weeks ago everything was going smoothly ahead of his title defense. The start of the Criterium du Dauphine was business as usual for Froome. Stage 2, with its finish at the summit of the Col du Beal, looked like it might encapsulate this year's Tour de France on one climb. Froome attacked and was too good again for the rest of the field. Alberto Contador improved on last year and managed to finish on Froome's wheel but was hanging on for dear life. The gap had closed between the big two but Froome was superior. Again. However, from that day the wheels have come off for Froome. He crashed on Stage 6 and on Stage 7 Contador got his revenge. The question for punters is how much that was down to the crash?
Contador is a much bigger threat this year and other worries for those backing Froome at odds on are that he is the big target this year and Movistar, Astana and Tinkoff-Saxo are all really strong teams and will throw the kitchen sink at Team Sky and their leader. He survived last year brilliantly. Can he do so again?
The cobbles and descents are also big worries. Descents are always crucial in bike racing but I sense they will particularly important this year. After the controversy in last year's race, others may use downhill sections to attack Froome and get under his skin.
Alberto Contador (11/8)
The ultimate Grand Tour tactician. Contador was all over the place 12 months ago yet still managed to finish fourth. He's in much better form this time around and seems to have his focus back. The Spaniard has had a brilliant start to the season and has looked more motivated than he has for a long time. I wouldn't worry one jot about him losing out on the final day of the Dauphine as that week looked all about putting one over Froome. He's backed up by a superb team and the battle between his lieutenants Roman Kreuziger and Michael Rogers and Team Sky's Richie Porte, Mikel Nieve and co. is going to one of the most intriguing features of the race. Contador is going to be a VERY tough nut to crack.
Vincenzo Nibali (10/1)
Last year's Giro winner and brilliantly consistent in the Grand Tours. He's only been outside the top three in one of the last seven - a brilliant record. Whether he has what it takes to win the Tour de France is a different matter. He improved during the Dauphine but Froome and Contador look to have the sign over the Italian.
Alejandro Valverde (18/1)
The Spaniard is in last chance saloon. Nairo Quintana looks guaranteed to lead this team in the Tour next year and age is catching up with him. Valverde is deeply unpopular in the peloton but I like his chances of finishing on the podium. Inconsistency and off days during a three-week race have plagued him in the past but he's looked much stronger and more consistent this season. He's also been laid out for the Tour and not really been sighted since April, which is a good thing for his chances. The lack of time-trialling and the abundance of climbing is in Valverde's favour plus he has a brilliant team, who are on a high after the Giro and focussed solely on him with Quintana not involved. Don't forget that last year, without the lost time on Stage 13 after the split in the field in the cross winds after he had to change a wheel, Valverde would have been right in the mix. He's a big danger again this year.
Andrew Talansky (33/1)
His Dauphine success will get punters excited. He stole the race brilliantly on one of the best day's racing we have seen for a long time. However, that race was all about a private psychological duel between Froome and Contador and I'd be amazed if Talansky can repeat the trick in the Tour.
Tejay van Garderen (50/1)
My selection in this column last year. A disaster. He's long been touted as the "new kid on the block" and the next GC contender for BMC, and this three weeks will be make or break for the American. He's looked better this season and did ok in the Dauphine but still looks a way off the big boys and still too regularly hampered by illness and injury. A top eight finish would be a decent result.
The Green Jersey
We successfully backed Peter Sagan to win this last year and he's very short at 4/7 to repeat the trick. He'll be tough to beat but recently hasn't looked the invincible Sagan of 12 months ago. Crucial in deciding who wears the Green Jersey will be the intermediary sprints, which Sagan is always up for but they hold less interest for Mark Cavendish. He's more motivated by stage wins and tends to save his energy for the end of a stage.
The man I'm backing to make a huge impression at this year's Tour is Michael Matthews. Matthews is a brash young Aussie whose nickname is "bling", which tells you everything you need to know. This boy is not short of confidence and he's set to be cycling's next star. People are saying he's too young and inexperienced to compete for the Green Jersey but this is a guy who won two stages of the Vuelta and wore the pink jersey for a while in this year's Giro. He will be in the mix in the sprints and is a decent climber so can compete in stages where Cav, Kittel and co. will be dropped. Stage 2 to Sheffield being a prime example.
Matthews is a showman and will have a go, so 66/1 looks a massive price with Sky Bet. We should get a good run for our money and have a lot of fun in the process.
My Tour fancies
Alejandro Valverde to finish on the podium
Simon Gerrans to win a stage @ 2/1
Michael Matthews each-way for the Green Jersey @ 66/1