When the Tour of Britain starts tomorrow in Rochdale, interest is likely to centre on a mouth-watering battle between the two strongest teams. Team Sky, desperate to impress on home soil, will face the might of HTC-Columbia, with the Americans bringing a squad that, even without Mark Cavendish, looks like it could spoil the Sky party.
With Cavendish riding the Tour of Spain, it's HTC’s number two sprinter, André Greipel, who poses a serious threat on the flat stages. But the presence in the same team of Cavendish’s lead-out man, Mark Renshaw, is interesting. When Cavendish isn’t riding, Renshaw can also win, as he proved at the recent Danmark Rundt.
Otherwise, it’s certainly an HTC ‘A’ squad, with Greipel and Renshaw joined by Tony Martin, Marco Pinotti, Michael Albasini and former world time trial champion Bert Grabsch. In fact, three of these four are time trial specialists, which is a little odd, given that the Tour of Britain doesn’t include a time trial.
It was the absence of a time trial that initially seemed to rule out Bradley Wiggins’s participation. When the Tour of Britain route was announced in April, Wiggins fired off an angry 'tweet’: “No TT again in race around Britain, looks like a race for the sprinter again, looks like Vuelta [a España] this year then.”
Within 24 hours Wiggins had been talked around by Team Sky, who presumably insisted on the appearance of their star rider in their home race. But although Wiggins may be disappointed at the lack of a time trial, he could be wrong about it being a race for sprinters. The eight-day race includes eight first category climbs and Mick Bennett, technical director of the Tour of Britain, claims it will be “the hardest edition we’ve ever had”.
It's Monday’s stage three in Wales that really stands out, and which could provide a springboard for a non-sprinter to win overall, particularly if he rides for a team capable of controlling the race in the stages that follow.
After climbing through the Brecon Beacons National Park, and across the exposed moorland of the Black Mountain range, which includes a Continental-style 6km climb, the stage will finish just 1.5km after Constitution Hill in Swansea.
Constitution Hill is only 300m long, but it’s cobbled, as steep as one-in-three in places and it could – as it did in the old Kellogg’s Tour of Britain, when it caused half the field to get off and walk – wreak havoc.
Looking beyond HTC and Sky, it's a stage that should suit riders such as the in-form Dan Martin or the returning Heinrich Haussler, who will be team-mates next season but for the moment ride for two of the other big teams, Garmin-Transitions and Cervélo.
The fifth Tour de France team to feature in the race are Saxo Bank, who include in their line-up a rider unlikely to win, but who will possibly enjoy more roadside support than anyone else.
Almost a year to the day after his horrific scooter crash in Italy, after which he was in a coma for four weeks, Jonny Bellis is down to ride. The Isle of Man rider might struggle, but merely making the Saxo Bank team for the Tour of Britain represents a huge milestone on his comeback trail.
As for who will win, it's difficult to see past HTC-Columbia, though Team Sky will dearly want to mark their debut season, and put a turbulent and traumatic month behind them, with victory in their national tour.
The British team will be without last year’s winner Edvald Boasson Hagen, but Russell Downing, who can sprint and climb, has gone close in the past, and might be their best bet.
As well as Wiggins, fellow Brits Steve Cummings and Geraint Thomas are in the Sky line-up, along with New Zealand sprinter Greg Henderson – who was Greipel’s lead-out man at HTC-Columbia last year – and Australia’s Mathew Hayman.