British kickoff for La Grande Boucle

The biggest road race of the year, this year's Tour takes a clockwise loop round France, starting in London.

With a start in London this year, the Tour de France continues its once every two year practice of kicking off outside the host country.

It's been 13 years since the Tour last visited Britain, and its popularity then should be an encouraging sign for this year's opening weekend. Despite predictions of bad weather - also known as a typical English summer - hundreds of thousands of fans are expected to watch the riders set off in the short opening time trial from Whitehall at 3pm on Saturday. They will be in for a treat, as the prologue course passes many of London's most famous landmarks: Parliament Square, Buckingham Palace, Constitution Hill, Hyde Park, Park Lane and The Mall.

The first stage takes the riders out of London via the Tower Bridge and Greenwich for a 203km rolling stage through Kent to Canterbury. This one will suit the sprinters, and those close to the top on the general classification will be looking to take over the yellow jersey. The Tour will then cross the Channel for a Franco-Belgian day out between Dunkirk and Gent, before dashing across north-eastern France to the first mountain stage, stage 7's 197km trek from Bourg-en-Bresse to Le-Grand-Bornand. This stage takes in three passes, culminating in the 16km, 6.7 percent Col de la Colombière.

The following day throws more Alpine ascents at the riders, with stage 8's 165km, six-col crossing from Le-Grand-Bornand to Tignes, including the Cormet de Roselend (19.9 km, 6 percent gradient), the Montée de Hauteville (15.3 km, 4.7 percent) and finishing atop the 17.9 km, 5.5 percent Le Lac.

A rest day follows, allowing riders to recuperate before the final day of the Alps. Stage 9 from Val-d'Isère to Briançon is short but sharp, with three major ascents, the Col de l'Iseran (15 km, 6 percent) after just 15km, the Col du Télégraphe (12 km, 6.7 percent) and the mighty Col du Galibier (17.5 km, 6.9 percent).

After three days struggling in the mountains, the sprinters and breakaway specialists get to do their thing across the sunny south of France in stages 10, 11 and 12, before the first of two long time trials in Albi.

Then we're back in the mountains for the first day of the Pyrenees, Stage 14 starts in Mazamet and finishes on the 15.9 km, 7.9 percent Plateau-de-Beille, taking in the Côte de Sarraille (9 km, 5.2) and Port de Pailhères (16.8 km, 7.2 percent) on the way.

Stage 15 from Foix to Loudenvielle - Le Louron takes in a new climb, the Port de Balès (19.5 km, 6.2 percent), the penultimate of five ascents including the Col de Port Ascent (11.4 km at a 5.3 percent) , Col de Portet d'Aspet (5.7 km, 6.9 percent ), Col de Menté (7 km at a 8.1 percent) and finally the Col de Peyresourde (9.7 km, 7.8 percent).

A rest day precedes the last day in the mountains, which will be a chance for the leaders to "confirm their domination, whereas the others will be trying to seize their last chance to change the classification," said Tour commissaire François Lemarchand at the route launch last year. This is a long, tough day covering 218km from Orthez to Gourette and finishing atop the 16.4 km, 6.9 percent Col d'Aubisque. On the way it takes in the Col de Larraut (14.2 km at a 8 percent), Col de la Pierre Saint-Martin (14 km, 5.2 percent, and Col de Marie-Blanque (9.3 km, 7.7 percent).

Although the Pyrenees might be decisive, the race might yet come down to the final time trial, a 55km test from Cognac to Angoulême. This will be a chance for a pure time trialist to shine as the course is not technical or especially hilly, but the placings might yet upset the general classification as they did in 2006.

The entire route covers 3,550 kilometres, and will once again present the greatest challenge to any professional cyclist who wants to win. Unfortunately, the result of last year's Tour is still up in the air due to the Floyd Landis affair. It remains to be seen whether this year's grande boucle will re-establish some much needed credibility to the sport.

Contenders

The battle for the maillot jaune is always the most important in the Tour, and this year looks to be as wide open as 2006. There is no defending champion - yet - but last year's runner-up Oscar Pereiro (Caisse d'Epargne) will surely rank among the favourites. Pereiro was certainly lucky to be given a 30 minute bonus in stage 13, which allowed him to take the yellow jersey. But he defended it well and only lost it to a very questionable Floyd Landis. Pereiro's teammate Alejandro Valverde will also have favourite's status, provided he can stay on the bike this year.

There has been a lot of talk about Kazakh duo Alexandre Vinokourov and Andrey Kashechkin. The pair spearhead the powerful Astana team, with Vino coming off an overall victory in the Tour of Spain last year. "At 33, I know it's a case of now or never," he reckons. He's a naturally attacking rider, a trait that has earned him victories in many of the big races. He also has a third place finish in the 2003 Tour to his credit. But Astana has more arrows in its baby blue quiver: Andreas Klöden, who was third last year and second in 2004, has plenty of podium experience. The step up to the top might be a big one for the fragile German, but he will be a perfect balance to Vinokourov.

Team CSC also brings a powerful squad to the Tour. Headed by the super consistent Carlos Sastre, CSC will have high ambitions for the yellow jersey. Sastre will be well supported by Fränk Schleck - the elder of the talented Luxembourg brothers - who last year won the Tour stage to L'Alpe d'Huez. He is capable of greater things, and may well get a shot at the podium this year.

Discovery Channel dominated the Tour for seven years with Lance Armstrong, but haven't been able to fill the gap left by the American since his retirement in 2005. Ivan Basso might well have done it for them, had he not admitted guilt in the Operación Puerto affair in April. That leaves Levi Leipheimer, who has been a consistent top finisher in the Tour and is in good shape this year. A podium chance for sure.

Speaking of podium chances, Australian Cadel Evans (Predictor-Lotto) has been improving every year. Eighth in 2005 and fifth in 2006, Evans could well find himself up there on the Champs Elysees at the end of July. And maybe Christophe Moreau could too. The 36 year-old Frenchman proved he still has what it takes by winning the recent Dauphiné Libéré. He might not be the great hope of French cycling any more, but he could give the host country some pride in Paris.

The Tour is not just about the yellow jersey, though. The green jersey for the most consistent finisher is often just has hotly contested. Well, Robbie McEwen (Predictor-Lotto) won it by huge margin last year, but in other years it has come down to the final sprint on the Champs-Elysees.

The green jersey is typically won by the best sprinter in the Tour, provided he manages to get over the mountains. There are plenty of fast men in the peloton who can do that these days, including multiple green jersey winner Erik Zabel (Milram) and his teammate Alessandro Petacchi. The latter will probably be the favourite in the early stages, but Zabel

Thor Hushovd (Credit Agricole) was third in the points classification last year, having won it in 2005. The powerhouse Norwegian will be a certain challenger again this year. Quick.Step's Tom Boonen has won many major races during his young career, but he has yet to claim the Tour's green jersey. He has the speed, but has a tendency to fall off and hurt himself. Consistency is essential when going for this prize.

The polka-dot mountains jersey has been won for the last year years by Danish mountain goat Michael Rasmussen. The Rabobank climber will no doubt be chasing the spots again in 2007, and it will be a brave man who takes him on. Good climbers who aren't interested in the overall classification are a rare breed, and Rasmussen has adopted the tactic that both Richard Virenque and Laurent Jalabert used before him to win the jersey: Attack like a lunatic in the toughest mountain stages - not necessarily with the ambition to win a stage, but to gather as many mountain sprints before being caught. It works, and it would be good for the fans if another climber challenged 'Chicken' Rasmussen.

The last Tour jersey is the white one for best young rider under 25. There are several great white hopes in the Tour peloton this year, led by Discovery Channel's Alberto Contador. The 24 year-old won Paris-Nice and the Vuelta a Castilla y Leon early in the season, and might well end up in the Tour's top 10. Others to watch include Linus Gerdemann (T-Mobile), Bernhard Kohl (Gerolsteiner) and Thomas Lövkvist (Française des Jeux). Often the winner of this jersey goes onto greater things in the following years, so it's always an interesting competition.

Finally, the question on most British fans' lips is who will take the first maillot jaune on Saturday? Local hopes Brad Wiggins (Cofidis) and David Millar (Saunier Duval) are certain favourites, but can they stop the Swiss powerhouse Fabian Cancellara (CSC)? Cance won the prologue back in 2004, but has since matured into the world's top time trialist. But there's no doubt who the crowd will be cheering for on Saturday. A Wiggins or Millar victory would be very popular.

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