The Tour de France gets underway tomorrow in the Normandy commune of Mont Sant Michel and among the 189 riders taking part are two Irishmen, Sam Bennett and Dan Martin.
Martin will spearhead his Etixx-QuickStep team’s assault on the yellow jersey while Bennett’s focus will be on trying to win one of the 21 stages over the three weeks for Bora-Argon 18.
But it’s not all that simple, because with a lumpy course favoured to the bantamweight climbers like Martin, chances of a maiden victory for Bennett are greatly reduced.
Having said that, he is in superb condition right now and knows with a little luck, he can push for the top step of the podium on the flatter days.
His debut in 2015 was an entirely forgettable experience and from the moment the flag dropped he took beating after beating before eventually quitting the race four days before the finish.
But 12 months on, he’s a different, more relaxed and mature rider.
“It was a shock to the system last year, seeing everyone so absolutely on the peak of their form,” reflected Bennett.
“It makes it so much harder when you’re not so confident going into it, you know yourself if you’re going badly and any little weakness is exposed and that makes your over-think things.
“I think I’m more relaxed this year, I don’t have too many high expectations but I know it’s not going to be as bad last year…it can’t be,” he said, rather despondently.
It’s been a very good year so far for the 25 year-old Carrick-on-Suir rider with a win on the opening stage of Criterium International sandwiched by top results in the Tours of Oman and Qatar as well as the Criterium du Dauphiné.
The Criterium du Dauphiné is the last major event for riders to hone their form prior to the big show in July and though he didn’t win a stage, the performances were encouraging.
“It was really, really tough, it was even hard to finish it,” he said.
“In the Tour there’s a lot more sprinters but in the Dauphiné it’s mainly made up of climbers. You’re just looking around at all these skinny fellas and wondering ‘what am I doing here’.
“Everyone is racing flat-out every day to try and get selected for the Tour and it’s not very controlled. The Tour is more controlled; the climbers do their thing and the sprinters (like me) just come in in the last group on the road and target days that suit us better.
“I managed a few top 10 finishes against a few of the big boys so that augers well for me.”
Bennett will definitely be in the mix for tomorrow’s opening stage from Mont Sant Michel to Utah beach where the winner will have the distinction of pulling on the first yellow jersey of this year’s race.
He hasn’t allowed his mind to wander that far just yet, but plenty others have had good reason to.
“Obviously I’m going to try and have a go but we’ll see. I’ll have my teammate Shane (Archbold) for support in the final kilometres.
“We’ve worked together a long time and we know each other so it’s time to bring it to a higher level.”
The other Irish rider in the field is 2013 stage winner Dan Martin and he is being touted as a contender for overall glory.
The Irishman has never been in the top 10 before but looks to be somewhere near the form of his life now.
He was third overall at the Dauphiné — a race won by the Tour de France’s favourite Chris Froome (Team Sky).
Crucially, Martin managed to distance Froome on the steepest climbs and that has only amplified talk of what he can do these next few weeks.
“If Chris is in top form them he’s the favourite,” accepts Martin. “The way to beat him though, like anyone, is capitalise on their bad day.
“Everyone has a bad day at a grand tour but it’s about who has the worst bad day and if your bad day falls on an important stage.
“Sometimes you have a bad day on a flat stage and no one notices. Other times you have it on a mountain stage and you lose the entire race.
“That’s what makes grand tours special. Sky are going in with a stronger team than they’ve ever had.”
Getting sick or crashing has been Martin’s downfall in the past and he’s lost count of the times he’s looked ready to take a massive result only for misfortune to befall him. If he is to challenge the likes of Alberto Contador (Tinkoff), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Froome and become only the second Irishman to win the Tour de France after Stephen Roche, he knows he needs the stars aligning for him all the way to Paris on July 24.
“I’m conscious of the fact that in the last three Tours I’ve done I’ve got sick in all of them. I think we’ve found the solution to that but I want to do everything I can to not get sick. It has been my weakness in the past.
“Now, I’m climbing with the best but the Tour is theTour. I’m confident that if I can avoid getting sick and if I can avoid crashing then I can get the top 10.
“How far into that top 10 I can go, that remains to be seen but I’ve a realistic chance.
“The team doesn’t want us to go into the race saying ‘I can do top five’ but let’s see what happens. I’ve got the backing now and we can compete in the high mountains. It’s really exciting to be in this position.”
Five key stages
STAGE 1, tomorrow, 188 km (117 miles) from Mont- Saint-Michel to Utah Beach (Sainte-Marie-du-Mont) in the Normandy region
The Mont-Saint-Michel, a World Heritage Benedictine abbey perched on a rock off the Normandy coast, will provide a picture-postcard start for the race.
The first stage ends at Utah Beach. Following the coastline for long stretches, wind could play a big role, with the possibility of splitting the peleton. In the end, though, sprinters are expected to vie for the stage win.
Germany’s Marcel Kittel and Britain’s Mark Cavendish are the pick of the bunch.
STAGE 5, July 6, 216 kms (134 miles) from Limoges to Le Lioran in the Massif Central
After the sprinters have the spotlight in the opening four legs, this should be the stage where the race really starts.
Featuring five climbs in a constant up-and-down finish, including the 1,589-metre (5,213-foot) Pas de Peyrol, it will mark the first time that the Tour has gone above 1,500 meters this early in the race since the leg-breaking start in 1979.
Look for overall contenders Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana and Alberto Contador to spring into action for the first time.
The Tour won’t be won here but it could be lost.
STAGE 8, July 9, 183 kms (114 miles) from Pau to Bagneres-de-Luchon in the Pyrenees
The most difficult stage on paper, featuring the legendary Col du Tourmalet plus three more serious climbs in quick succession — the Hourquette d’Ancizan, the Val Louron-Azet and the Col de Peyresourde.
After hours in the saddle, the leaders will be pleased to take on the high-speed descent from the Peyresourde into the finish in Luchon, which is not highly technical.
Whoever holds the yellow jersey after this stage will have taken a step toward overall victory.
STAGE 12, July 14, 184 kms (114 miles) from Montpellier to Mont Ventoux in the Provence region
French climbing specialists Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot surely have circled this stage for special attention. Besides containing one of the race’s most famous climbs, the stage will be held on Bastille Day.
Defending champion Chris Froome was the stage winner when the Tour last scaled Ventoux’s barren, 1,909-metre (6,263-foot) peak in 2013.
Ventoux was also the site of an epic contest between Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani in 2000, and where British rider Tom Simpson died in 1967.
Heat is usually a factor on the grueling climb up Ventoux and there will be the added factor of wanting to keep something in reserve for the race’s first — and longest — time trial a day later.
STAGE 18, July 21, 17-kms individual time trial from Sallanches to Megeve in the Rhone-Alps region
It’s the Tour’s first mountain time trial since the 2004 race against the clock up l’Alpe d’Huez.
Besides the flat opening four kilometres (2 1/2 miles) and a short descent at the finish, it’s entirely uphill.
While there will still be two more stages in the Alps, this leg could be decisive for overall victory.
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