People can argue which cycling race is the 'greatest' or the best test of an all-round cyclist. But there is no question that the BIGGEST cycling event around is the Tour de France. It kicks off in only a few days, so its time for me to lay down my predictions for how the race will go!!
The biggest defining feature to me in this year's course is the over 100km of individual time trialling, made up of a short prologue, and two longer ITT's. This is definitely more than normal, and plays into the hands of a couple of key contenders.
Add to that only a few mountain-top finishes, and the usual dominance of the 'pure climbers' is looking much less likely.
So let's have a look at who will win!!
Cadel Evans (BMC)
The defending champion, Cadel really couldn't ask for a better course than this one. He had an early hiccup this year with some illness in May, but showed that he was building form nicely with a strong result in the Criterium du Dauphine.
Expect him to be at his absolute best in the 3rd week of the Tour.
Bradley Wiggins (Team Sky)
The bookie's favourite, Wiggins is in career best form. He has won both Paris-Nice and the Criterium du Dauphine this year, and has a stellar team of genuine tour contenders as his support team. If Wiggins is ever going to win a Tour de France, this is the one!!
The biggest question is how will Wiggins cope in the 3rd week of the Tour. Will he crack, like he did in last year's Vuelta? I think he'll struggle to keep up with Cadel in that final week...
The Best of the Rest
Vincenzo Nibali (Liquigas)
The Italian most likely! Nibali knows how to win a Grand Tour, having previously won the Vuelta. Normally he Targets the Giro, and then supports Ivan Basso in the Tour - but this year the roles have been reversed.
His form hasn't been outstanding, but he is also building form. His 3-week pedigree is strong evidence he'll be around at the end of the race.
Samuel Sanchez (Euskatel-Euskadi)
Last year's King of the Mountains winner, and a perennial high performer at the Tour. Not good enough to beat Cadel, but likely to be at the front of proceedings when the road heads upwards.
Robert Gesink (Rabobank)
My tip as the man most likely to come of age in this year's race. Gesink has had a bad run of injuries, but has performed well in the last few months - most notably winning the Tour of California emphatically. Expect him to be standing on the podium in Paris!
Jurgen Van de Broek (Lotto-Belisol)
Cadel's old team-mate at OmegaPharma-Lotto, he is finally showing the form that his team directors knew he had. He is sharing a team with sprinter Andre Greipel, so won't have a full team of helpers - but he will Top 10 for sure.
Alejandro Valverde (Team Movistar)
Back at the Tour after his long suspension, Valverde is looking to make a statement with a strong result. Historically, he always has a 'bad day' at some point - but he is riding well this year and has grea team support.
Who Won't Win
Dennis Menchov (Katusha)
Too old, inconsistent form - sorry Dennis, its not your year!!
Way too many time trial kilometres for the older Schleck brother to do well this year. He is a super-talented climber though, and is my tip for this year's King of the Mountain jersey.
The Final Classification!!
So time to stick my neck out - what will the final GC look like in Paris? I had a shocker tipping the Giro, so let's see if I can do better for the Tour:
1. Cadel Evans
2. Vincenzo Nibali
3. Robbert Gesink
4. Bradley Wiggins
5. Samuel Sanchez
6. Jurgen Van den Broek
7. Alejandro Valverde
8. Bauke Mollema
9. Pierre Rolland
10. Frank Schleck
And not to forget the other jersey classifications:
Green sprinter's jersey - 1. Peter Sagan; 2. Matthew Goss; 3. Andre Greipel. Mark Cavendish will drop out before the end to freshen up for the London Olympics.
Polka-dot mountains jersey - 1. Frank Schleck; 2. Cadel Evans; 3. Samuel Sanchez.
White youth jersey - 1. Bauke Mollema; 2. Rein Taaremae; 3. Tejay Van Garderen.
Here's to a fantastic Tour de France 2012!!