It’s that time of year. July, when those who can’t afford a holiday to the French countryside enjoy a virtual visit via late nights watching the Tour de France.
And in an age of the MAML, when every middle-age male seems to be donning Lycra and cycling their way to hoped for immortality, it’s a relief to again finally see some real specimens taking on sport’s toughest challenge.
First up, in Saturday night’s (AEST) opening stage in Belgium, all eyes will be on Australian sprinter Caleb Ewan, hoping to make his debut a winning one.
The 24-year-old has big pedals to push, having joined Belgian outfit Lotto-Soudal as a replacement for German great Andre Greipel, who won 11 Tour de France stages for the team.
Saturday’s flat 194km opener through the countryside will likely be decided in a bunch sprint in front of the royal palace.
“It is a stage that I can win and I know the team and I really want to win the first stage,” Ewan told reporters on Thursday.
“I’m relaxed now, but come Saturday morning I will be nervous. I’m just excited to experience what the race is like.
“It’s a massive motivation for me that it’s in Brussels. Obviously it’s never going to start in Australia so the next best thing would be to start in the home country of your team and it’s pretty special my first stage is this one.
<br /> If there was any stage I would pick to win this year, it would be this one, because it means the yellow jersey too.”
Ewan says he grew up thinking that the Tour de France was the only cycling race in the world because it was the only one shown on television, but already he has won stages on the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta de Espana.
With the likes of Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Nacer Bouhanni not in this year’s Tour, there is even talk of Ewan being a contender for the sprinters’ green jersey.
“I don’t really think about that,” he said. “I just want to win a lot of rides. If I succeed, I might start thinking about it. But for now the goal is to win stages.
“You never really know until we’ve had a few sprints who the top sprinters are going to be.”
Overall, Chris Froome’s absence has thrown the race wide open, although Austraia’s Richie Porte believes defending champion Geraint Thomas the “clear favourite”
Trek-Segafredo’s Porte can perhaps afford to talk freely, with the pressure off his shoulders after a disappointing start to the season during which he has been plagued by illness.
But the former Team Sky rider clearly expects his old bosses to be celebrating again, come Paris.
“I think Thomas is the clear favourite,” Porte said. “He won it last year, and he’s probably in better shape this year, too
“With the team that (Ineos) have and their other card, Egan Bernal, a wonder kid who can do everything, I think the pressure is on them.”
THE 106th TOUR DE FRANCE
This year’s Tour has 21 stages, total distance 3460 kilometres
TV: SBS 8.30pm
The key stages
Stage one, July 6 – Brussels to Brussels, 194.5km. Can sprint ace Caleb Ewan have a dream Tour debut by winning the opening stage and becoming the eighth Australian to wear the famed yellow jersey as race leader?
Stage six, July 11 – Mulhouse to La Planche Des Belles Filles, 160.5km. The first summit finish. Organisers have made the steep finish even harder with an extra kilometre. An early look at who can win the Tour.
Stage nine, July 14 – Saint-Etienne to Brioude, 170.5km. Not the biggest of stages, but very big for top Australian hope Richie Porte. He’s crashed out of the Tour in stage nine for the last two years.
Stage 13, July 19 – Pau to Pau, 27.2km. Individual time trials are not the most thrilling, but Australian Rohan Dennis (Bahrain Merida) is the stage favourite.
Stage 14, July 20 – Tarbes to Tourmalet Bareges, 117.5km. The Tourmalet is an iconic Tour climb and this will be a pivotal day in the Pyrenees.
Stages 18 to 20, July 25-27. Three consecutive days of climbing hell in the Alps. Stage 18 features the famed Galibier climb and the next two days are summit finishes.
Riders to watch
Four-time champion Chris Froome and last year’s runner-up Tom Dumoulin are out because of injury and the hope is that their absence will mean a more open Tour. Don’t count on it. Team Ineos – formerly Team Sky – remain powerful without Froome and they could dominate again.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas (GBR) will lead Ineos, with young Colombian sensation Egan Bernal his main lieutenant.
British rider Adam Yates will lead the Australian Mitchelton-Scott team, with twin brother Simon as his top lieutenant.
Bernard Hinault was the last French winner in 1985. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r) are the top local hopes.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida), The Shark Of Messina, is the only Tour champion outside Team Sky/Ineos since Cadel Evans’ 2011 triumph.
Also watch for Jakob Fuglsang (DEN, Astana), the Movistar duo of Nairo Quintana (COL) and Mikel Landa (ESP) and Colombian Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First).
Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) is the top Australian chance, but he’s 34 and his season has been cruelled by illness. He also needs to overcome a rotten run of luck at the Tour.
Michael Matthews (Team Sunweb) is more of an all-rounder. He won the Tour green jersey classification two years ago.
Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) finally makes his Tour debut. He’s in good form, winning two stages at the Giro d’Italia.
Rohan Dennis (BMC)
Simon Clarke (EF Education First)
Luke Durbridge, Michael Hepburn and Jack Haig (Mitchelton-Scott)