Could the stage be set for the first British winner of the Tour de France?

In 2009, Team Sky was formed with the singular objective of creating the first “British winner” of the Tour within five years.

And, although having lowered their initial expectations to that of mere “winner”, it may just be that a plan came together for the Manchester-based outfit when the 2012 route was announced by the Amaury Sports Organisation, the long-time organisers, back in October.

The course features more than twice the total distance of time-trialling – 96.1 versus 42.5km – than the previous edition, including a 52km solo effort on the penultimate day designed to set the cat among the pigeons.

Whether Team Sky leader Bradley Wiggins will be the outright favourite come June 30 is debatable, but, at the age of 32, it is probably safe to say that if the Brit doesn’t win this year, he never will.

Apart from the Tour of Switzerland and Critérium du Dauphiné in the weeks leading up to the Tour, the Paris-Nice (March) and Tour de Romandie (April) are the most important annual indicators of who might shine in July.

Having won both the early-season events, and as defending champion of the Critérium du Dauphiné, Wiggins has put himself in pole position for yellow in France and he will have a hard time coming up with any excuses should he fail.

If he does, one would expect his African-born team-mate Chris Froome, who outpaced him at last year’s Vuelta to finish second overall, to take over the mantle of principal rider.

Froome, a naturalised Brit, may already have the credentials (especially after coming to the fore in the race against the clock at the Vuelta) to upstage Wiggins, but, keeping in mind what happened in Spain when he clearly was the stronger, he possibly has another year or so left of his apprenticeship.

Defending champion Cadel Evans, who was second in the Tour’s final time-trial last year to overturn a 57-second deficit into a comfortable overall winning margin over Luxembourg’s Andy Schleck, is another rider who has been given every opportunity to place on the top step of the podium.

However, at 34, the Australian former world champion was already the oldest post-war winner of the Tour and, as we all know, time waits for no one.

With Spain’s Alberto Contador serving the final part of his suspension after his retroactive exclusion from the last two editions, the youngest Schleck, who was as a result gifted the 2010 title by the World Anti-Doping Agency, is probably the top contender among those who have a hard time in the time-trials.

He has consistently been the highest-placing climber over the past few years, and has the enviable advantage of having brother Fränk – third at the Tour last year – at his beck and call.

Fränk’s DNF at the Giro in May due to a crash-induced shoulder injury might still be a blessing in disguise if he is able to make a full recovery.

These days the Giro consistently churns out leg-breaking routes and the likes of Spanish climber Joaquim Rodriguez, Canada’s Ryder Hesjedal and Italian supremo Ivan Basso, all of whom are in the twilight of their careers, will more than likely be spent forces when the 99th edition of the Tour rolls around.

A resurgent Robert Gesink might be in a better position after his victory in the slightly more forgiving eight-day Tour of California in May.

Although he won the tour in the mountains, the Dutchman, who is notoriously bad against the clock, placed third in the all-important time-trial – a fact that wouldn’t have gone unnoticed by anyone who considers himself a Tour contender.

Of course, the interesting part is to watch and see if everything pans out as the form book suggests, and Team Sky’s bosses will probably take front-row seats.

If yellow is set for British soil, why not also green?

One would think that only the Alps and Pyrenees stand between world champion Mark Cavendish and the green jersey – the Tour’s second most valuable asset.

However, the Tour of California has dished up another name that should have the world’s top sprinters breaking out in a cold sweat – that of 22-year-old Slovak Peter Sagan.

Winning five of the eight stages wasn’t the only thing that grabbed the attention; it was also the ease with which he did it.   

He will find his maiden Tour a different kettle of fish for sure, but I’m looking forward to seeing him take on Britain’s finest.

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