The 2014 Tour de France is poised to be a keenly fought battle, with no fewer than four previous Grand Tour winners vying for overall victory.
There is also a crop of up-and-coming young talent looking to make their mark and challenge for places high up the general classification.
Here, we look at ten riders who could be on the podium in Paris…
Team: Team Sky
The 2013 Tour winner is back to defend his title and will start the race as favourite to win the yellow jersey for the second year in succession. Froome's build-up hasn’t been as smooth as it was a year ago, most notably having crashed at the Criterium du Dauphine and finished 12th overall, but the Team Sky rider won both the Tour of Oman in February and Tour de Romandie in May in dominant style. Injury and illness have been persistent problems in 2014, but when fully fit, he has looked the man to beat this year and will be once again at the Tour.
SkyBet odds: 10/11
The two-time Tour winner endured one of the poorest seasons of his career in 2013 and many began to question whether his time had passed. However, it’s been a case of “Bertie’s back” in 2014, with Contador re-finding the exhilarating form that made him a five-time Grand Tour winner. He has won Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Basque Country this year, and also finished second at the Volta ao Algarve, Volta a Catalunya and Criterium du Dauphine. He would have won the Dauphine – the key build-up race to the Tour – had it not been for a bizarre final stage in which eventual winner Andrew Talansky was allowed to join a breakaway and snatch the yellow jersey at the death, but Contador’s clearly excellent form was nevertheless there for all to see.
SkyBet odds: 11/8
Coming into 2014, Nibali was the third of the “Big Three” contenders for the Tour, but while Froome and Contador have enjoyed strong seasons, his has so far been a nightmare. He was out of shape at the start of the year and fared poorly at the Tour of Oman, and still hadn’t found his form by the Tour de Romandie, where he could only finish fifth. More troubles then followed at the Dauphine, where he was dropped on more than one climb and finished only seventh overall. However, Nibali is a two-time Grand Tour winner, finished on the podium at the Tour in 2012 and also showed signs of resurgence by winning the Italian road race title over the weekend, so it seems infeasible that he won’t be on or close to the podium in Paris on July 27.
SkyBet odds: 10/1
Valverde doesn’t have the most impressive record at the Tour, with his best finish being sixth in 2007, but an excellent season so far suggests that he could be able to make a significant improvement on that. He got off to a great start by winning the Ruta del Sol in Spain for the third year in a row, before finishing an impressive third at Strade Bianche and winning the Roma Maxima one-day race. His form dipped at the Tour of the Basque Country, where he was given a going over by Contador on the way to a fifth-place overall finish, but Valverde bounced back with a fine Ardennes Classics campaign in which he won La Fleche Wallonne and took second place at Liege-Bastogne-Liege. A multi-talented rider who can climb with the best, he will be targeting a place on the podium.
SkyBet odds: 16/1
Talansky would not have been considered a genuine contender as little as a month ago, but that has all changed after a surprise but well-earned overall victory at the Dauphine. He mounted a smash-and-grab raid on Contador’s race lead by infiltrating the breakaway on the final stage and then holding off a ferocious counter-attack from the Spaniard on the final climb. Admittedly, he would not have won if Contador had concentrated on the bigger picture rather than spending most of the last day marking Froome, but Talansky's confidence will no doubt have been boosted and a place in the top five at the Tour could now be in his sights.
SkyBet odds: 33/1
The reigning world champion has good pedigree at the Tour, having won three stages during his career, including two in 2013. However, he has ambitions to become a general classification contender and consequently left a strong Movistar squad over the winter to join a Lampre-Merida team who were willing to give him a leadership role at a Grand Tour. Costa has enjoyed a strong season so far – finishing third at the Volta ao Algarve, second at Paris-Nice, third at the Tour de Romandie and winning the Tour de Suisse for a third year in a row – and will now look to challenge for another podium place at the Tour. While his relative inexperience of sustaining a three-week general classification tilt could render that difficult, don’t be surprised to see him at the sharp end.
SkyBet odds: 40/1
Tejay van Garderen
Team: BMC Racing
Along with Talansky, Van Garderen is the next big hope for the United States in Grand Tours. With Cadel Evans having focused on the Giro d'Italia instead of the Tour this year, he will have the full backing of his American team in France and will look to replicate the form that saw him finish fifth overall and top the best young rider classification in 2012. An adept climber and time-triallist, Van Garderen finished second behind Froome at the Tour of Oman and third at the Volta a Catalunya, having won a summit finish ahead of Contador, Froome and Nairo Quintana along the way. Confidence in Van Garderen has been damaged by a poor showing at the Dauphine, where he finished only 13th, but a top-five finish would not be a major surprise.
SkyBet odds: 50/1
Jurgen van den Broeck
Team: Lotto Belisol
Van den Broeck has twice finished fourth at the Tour – in 2010 and 2012 – but his chances of achieving a similar result this year were looking increasingly unlikely after a disappointing first half of the year in which his best result was a lowly 16th at the Tour of Oman. However, that all changed at the Dauphine, when he finished third overall and showed some fine climbing form to suggest he is getting back to his best at exactly the right time.
SkyBet odds: 50/1
Mollema finished sixth overall at last year’s Tour and has also finished fourth at the Vuelta a Espana, so his Grand Tour potential cannot be questioned. He is a regular fixture in the final group of elite climbers on summit finishes and should once again be in the picture during the Tour. Mollema hasn’t enjoyed the best of seasons so far and although he finished third at the Tour de Suisse, he will need to make further improvements if he is to replicate his 2013 Tour showing.
SkyBet odds: 80/1
Team: Omega Pharma - Quick-Step
Kwiatkowski has been one of the outstanding riders of the year so far, picking up marquee wins and displaying an all-round talent that suggests he will challenge for the yellow jersey at some point in the future. Kwiatkowski can do everything: he has beaten Contador in a mountain stage this year and also defeated both Tony Martin and Adriano Malori in a time trial. On top of that, he also showed himself to be a fine one-day rider by winning Strade Bianche and then finishing third at both the La Fleche Wallonne and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He edged out Contador to win the Volta ao Algarve in February and finished second at the Tour of the Basque Country to prove he can challenge in a stage race, but an alarming dip in form at the Dauphine, which he abandoned after six stages, has somewhat derailed his Tour build-up. Whether he can get back to his best will be interesting to see, because Kwiatkowski will no doubt be keen to improve on his 11th place at last year’s Tour and break into the top ten.
SkyBet odds: 125/1