When does it begin?
For only the second time in its 111-year history, the Tour de France will kick off on British soil when Leeds plays host to the Grand Départ on Saturday, 5 July. Unusually, this year’s race begins with a road stage rather than a prologue, giving an opportunity for Mark Cavendish or his great German rival Marcel Kittel to slip into the leader’s yellow jersey. And were Cavendish to require any extra motivation, his mother used to live in Harrogate - within spitting distance of the first stage finish.
Where can I watch it in the UK?
For a glimpse of the riders before the race even begins, head to Victoria Gardens in Leeds town centre, where the teams will be signing in on the morning of the Grand Départ.
Of the three British-based stages, the second from York to Sheffield should provide the most scenic delights. The 201 kilometres cross the Pennines and take in some of this country’s most iconic hills. The climb of Holme Moss in particular is expected to attract thousands of people- but the stage will be decided atop the brutally steep Jenkin Road, where you will be able to see the likes of Slovak powerhouse Peter Sagan in full flow.
The best vantage point for Stage 3 is obvious- the finish is on The Mall in London, as it was the first and last time the Tour visited Britain back in 2007. The long drag up to Buckingham Palace was also the site of the finish to the 2012 Olympic Road Race, when the Kazakh Alexander Vinokourov spoiled Mark Cavendish’s party with a hugely unpopular victory.
What are the key stages?
The favourites for the yellow jersey will have been having recurring nightmares about Stage 5. That’s because it features cobbles- many of the same sections used in the Spring Classic Paris-Roubaix, otherwise known as the ‘Hell of the North,’ which can end a contender’s race in an instant.
Stage 10 is the first major mountain test- and it ends at La Planche des Belles Filles, the site of Chris Froome’s maiden Tour win in 2012. On its way from Mulhouse, the stage passes over the Petit Ballon- the very first mountain ever used in the Tour de France.
If the yellow jersey contenders have not been separated by the Alps and Pyrenees, then Stage 20’s 54 kilometre time-trial to Bergerac will be crucial.
Where can defending champion Chris Froome win it and lose it?
A rider of Froome’s build will have to watch out for those cobbles - in 2010, they ended the Luxembourger Frank Schleck’s race via a broken collarbone. The defending champion will relish the ‘Queen Stage’ that takes in the legendary climb of the Tourmalet before a summit finish atop Hautacam, the scene of many memorable Tour battles over the years. And with Alberto Contador in ominous form, Froome will be grateful for the length of the Stage 20 time-trial which suits his abilities better than the Spaniard’s.
Who are the main contenders?
Froome is the undoubted favourite, despite a patchy season thus far. But Contador is not far behind- he was superior to the Briton at the Dauphiné-Libéré warm-up race in June.
Behind those two sit a group of riders surrounded by uncertainty. Alejandro Valverde will head the powerful Movistar team’s challenge and will expect a podium place. However he has never won the Tour and Froome may be thankful that his teammate, the diminutive Colombian climber Nairo Quintana is not riding after winning the Giro d’Italia in May. Joaquim Rodriguez of Team Katusha who finished third last year will ride for stage wins rather than overall glory this time around, after an injury-disrupted season.
Who could surprise the front-runners?
Perhaps this may be the year the French finally produce at their own race. The 2013 race was a Gallic annus horribilis saved only by Christophe Riblon’s memorable win on Alpe d’Huez, but in 2014 home prospects look brighter. Pierre Rolland performed strongly at the Giro d’Italia to finish 4- the highest Grand Tour placing by a French rider in 3 years- whilst the youthful Romain Bardet turned in a series of strong performances at the Dauphiné.
For an American surprise of the nice rather than Lance Armstrong-flavoured kind, look to Garmin-Sharp’s Andrew Talansky. The man nicknamed ‘Pitbull’ by his team manager Jonathan Vaughters finished 10 last year, and returns in 2014 with a team fully committed to riding for him in the mountains.
If it's a British outside bet you're after, look no further than Orica-GreenEdge’s Simon Yates. The first-year pro was a late inclusion in the Australian squad- but the steep hills of Stage 2 into Sheffield should suit his talents well.