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Tour de France: Can Geraint grab yellow? Thomas is a real contender again

Time for another 184 hopefuls to join the bloated peloton steamrolling through this sizzling sporting summer.

On Saturday, under the grey skies of Brittany, the wheels begin turning on the 108th Tour de France. And right from le Grand Depart, the world’s finest riders will be jostling for position.

With Euro 2020 warming up, and Tokyo poking over the horizon, these teams have three weeks and 3,414km to break from the pack and hit the front of public minds.

The race is fascinatingly poised. Two individual time trials, six mountain stages across the Alps and Pyrenees, a brief dash into Andorra — and no little uncertainty over who will be sipping champagne in Paris on July 18. 

Here Sportsmail runs through some of the key talking points…

Geraint Thomas is capable of achieving glory again as the Tour de France gets underway

NEW ERA FOR INEOS?

The days of Team Sky suffocating rivals with relentless pace on the front have now passed.

Instead Sir Dave Brailsford is promising a ‘fearless’ four-pronged attack to get pulses racing — and keep opponents guessing. ‘Expect the unexpected,’ they warn.

Except, of course, the strengths of Ineos Grenadiers hide in plain sight. They boast a formidable line-up, with 46 Tours between their eight riders and four contenders for the yellow jersey: Richard Carapaz, Richie Porte and British pair Geraint Thomas and Tao Geoghegan Hart.

Richard Carapaz is among the various threats that Ineos will pose at the Tour de France

They know only this new-found aggression can dethrone the 22-year-old reigning champion Tadej Pogacar.

‘He cannot follow all of us,’ warned Porte.

Uncertainty lingers over who will emerge as their leader, however. Thomas, the 2018 winner and 2019 runner-up, believes that flexibility gives Ineos ‘cards to play later on’. Ahead of his 11th Tour, he said: ‘Something will happen to somebody as it always does.’

The Welshman appears an obvious frontman — provided he can stay on the saddle.

CAVENDISH IS BACK

Little more than a week ago, Mark Cavendish had not even looked at this year’s route. That is how much the Manxman, 36, fancied his chances of lining up.

‘If you had told me 12 months ago that I would be in that Deceuninck-Quick-Step setup at the Tour I would have laughed at you,’ Cavendish told The Telegraph.

Mark Cavendish received a last-minute call up and is looking to add to his 30 stage wins

But a knee injury to Sam Bennett prompted a last minute call-up. Now Cavendish is primed to add to his 30 stage wins. The record stands at 34 and Cavendish is supported by a squad some say can provide the world’s best lead-out for sprinters. ‘I would be lying if I said I was not feeling like a teenager again,’ he said.

But Cavendish must fend off Caleb Ewan, arguably the fastest man in those final few hundred metres.

Cavendish’s first Tour was in 2007 and yet these must feel like unchartered waters. The expectation that has stalked him in previous years has largely disappeared. ‘It’s the least pressure I’ve felt for a long time. It’s not on my shoulders,’ he said.

… AND SO IS FROOME

Another surprise return. Four-time winner Chris Froome has struggled to shake off the after-effects of a crash in 2019, when he hit a wall and broke his femur, elbow and several ribs.

This is Froome’s first Tour in three years after Israel Start-Up Nation paid big money to make him their road captain. He has been off the pace this season and will only provide support for team leader, Canada’s Michael Woods.

Chris Froome has struggled to shake off the after-effects of a crash in 2019 but is in contention

But he insists: ‘I can’t wait to get back. It has been an arduous journey since my crash but this has been one of my biggest motivations.’

Elsewhere, Britain’s Mark Donovan will make his first Tour start with Team DSM.

SO WHO WILL WEAR YELLOW IN PARIS?

This year’s course includes the longest stage for 21 years — between Vierzon and La Creusot — which features more than 3,000m of climbs. There is also a highly-anticipated return to Mont Ventoux.

The hardest day, however, could come when the riders leave France and climb the Pyrenees into Andorra towards the highest point in this year’s race.

But nothing is expected to change the fact that there is a small cluster of contenders, led by Pogacar and fellow Slovenian Primoz Roglic, last year’s runner-up.

Thomas is among the other former winners, alongside Froome and Vincenzo Nibali, and no rider should be afforded better support than the Welshman. His biggest challenges may be avoiding another fall and fending off internal rivals. Carapaz, Porte and Tao Geoghegan Hart will all be ready to step in should Thomas waver.

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