Defending champion Jonas Vingegaard led the Tour de France out of the Basque port of Bilbao on Saturday in a 21-day adventure full of peaks, postcard panoramas and a dramatic showdown with a massive dormant volcano at 3,404km route to Paris.
The 30 mountains on the route gave Vingegaard of Jumbo-Visma the advantage over two-time champion Tadej Pogacar who is backed by a reinforced Team UAE squad.
A year ago, Jumbo’s combined strength helped the Dane, more stable on the toughest climbs, outlast the brave Pogacar in a merciless war of attrition in the mountains.
Pogacar was first last year and Vingegaard was second. This promises to be their third heavyweight fight.
Tour director Christian Prudhomme said AFP This year’s Tour is “the comeback fight, or perhaps revenge”.
He added: “It’s definitely going to be exciting.
“In tennis, the Federer-Nadal (clashes), the Nadal-Djokovics, it’s something that pulls you in, makes you love it.
“There is nothing more exciting than a rivalry,” Prudhomme added, comparing Vingegaard and Pogacar to the great rivalries of the past – Jacques Anquetil and Raymond Poulidor in the 1960s, or the 1986 clash between teammates Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault.
Pogacar won the Slovenian national championship on Sunday and said it was a good test of his legs ahead of the Tour.
“I’m happy to have succeeded. It was a good test before the Tour. My legs are pretty solid,” said Pogacar.
“Now, I’m going to rest before going to Bilbao for the start.”
French hope Romain Bardet said: “It will be a good fight, especially if they are both at 100 per cent.
“There is a plethora of pretenders following behind them.”
Tour folklore insists that the champion is chosen by the Alps, and 13 of this year’s 30 mountains are there, with six more in the Pyrenees, five in the Vosges, four in the Massif Central and one each in the Jura and the Basque Country.
The Tour begins hilly on the forested slopes around Bilbao and San Sebastian.
The Spanish Basque Country is a cycling heartland and the fervent local fans will be out in force for the Grand Depart.
Clever route design has set up what promises to be a swashbuckling struggle over the first three stages in an event televised in 190 countries.
The opener, around the Bilbao back-country, is equipped with terrain to tempt the one-day mavericks to go for glory with Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe a must-watch.
The 20km descent to the chic coastal resort of San Sebastian in stage two may raise an eyebrow after the recent shocking death of Swiss rider Gino Maeder at the Tour of Switzerland.
The peloton enters France on day three and then swings west for two stages through the Pyrenees before returning to the Atlantic coast.
The vineyards of Bordeaux, on the seventh stage, serve as an aperitif to the star landmark of this Tour, the magnificent dormant volcano at Puy de Dome.
The climb provides a spectacular view of the domes along the tectonic faultline of central France.
No fans or vehicles will be allowed on the steep and steep heights of the Puy de Dome where pretenders will be brutally exposed to the elements.
Another potential decider is stage 17 from Mont-Blanc, which climbs the four peaks, the last in exceptional wind above the tree line at the 2,300m summit of the final climb to Courchevel, where 2019 champion Egan Bernal could once again deliver a late challenge.
Gone are the 20-day individual time-trials that made recent finales a lottery. Instead, the final stage before Paris offers another five mountains and no let-up for the leader.
As always, the Tour is rich in sub-plots.
Rising star Biniam Girmay is fully capable of becoming the first black African to win a stage in this 110th edition.
“This is a big moment for me and for Eritrea,” said the 23-year-old leader of the Belgian team Intermarche-Wanty.
Targeting the sprints, Girmay will face veteran British speed king Mark Cavendish, who hopes to break a tie with all-time great Eddy Merckx with a 35th Tour de France stage win.
The Tour ends with the traditional mass bunch sprint on the cobbled Champs-Elysees on July 23 with the trophies then distributed under the Arc de Triomphe. In 2024 the finish will be in Nice because of the Paris Olympics.
The route of the Women’s Tour de France, from July 23-30, was announced on Thursday with a 1,000km itinerary starting in Clermont-Ferrand and taking riders south with a Col du Tourmalet climb in the Pyrenees as its highlight.