Paris (Reuters) - Tadej Pogacar will be the man to beat as he targets his third consecutive Tour de France title when the race sets off on Friday, with the 23-year-old Slovenian looking to become one of the sport's all-time great riders.
Dubbed the "Baby Cannibal" for his similarities to former five-time winner Eddy "The Cannibal" Merckx, Pogacar has already won the UAE Tour, the Tirreno-Adriatico and Tour of Slovenia stage races this season as well as the Strade Bianche one-day classic.
Only the Jumbo-Visma team armada seem able to dent Pogacar's armour. The Dutch outfit has two leaders - Slovenia's Primoz Roglic and last year's runner-up Jonas Vingegaard of Denmark - in a team that also boasts the formidable Wout van Aert.
They will be trying to control the race and isolate Pogacar, who has already shown that he fears no-one on any terrain. He will need to show that fearlessness again in the first few days when the winds in Denmark and the cobbles of northern France may prove treacherous.
He could even gain time on his main rivals on these stages before the race reaches the mountains, where he proved almost unbeatable last year.
"It will be definitely be an exciting battle between him and the Jumbo Visma team," Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme told Reuters.
The Tour returns to La Planche des Belles Filles, where Pogacar snatched the overall lead from Roglic in dramatic fashion in a time trial on the penultimate day of the 2020 race, while the punishing Col du Granon and L'Alpe d'Huez and its famous 21 hairpins also await.
The two time trials, the inaugural 13.2-km effort in Copenhagen and the final 40.7-km test in Rocamadour before the final day's procession to Paris, are not expected to unsettle Pogacar either.
Ineos-Grenadiers, who won seven out of eight Tour titles from 2012 before Pogacar seized power, will have chances with Adam Yates, Dani Martinez and Geraint Thomas in the team, but none of them individually are a match for the formidable Slovenian all-rounder.
France, meanwhile, is still waiting for its first Tour de France winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985, and there is little indication that he will have a successor this year.
Thibaut Pinot, who came agonisingly close in 2019 before retiring injured in the final week, is back to a decent level of performance but he is not expected to be a serious contender.
The Groupama-FDJ rider will go for stage wins and possibly the polka-dot jersey for the mountains classification in a likely duel with fellow Frenchman Romain Bardet, a surprise participant after he withdrew ill from the Giro d'Italia.
World champion Julian Alaphilippe was not picked by his Quick Step Alpha Vinyl team as he has only just returned to racing following a freak crash in April.
Also absent from the Belgian team's roster is Mark Cavendish, meaning the British rider will miss out on a chance to beat Merckx's record of 34 Tour stage wins, having matched that record at last year's race.
The race will start under another cloud of doping suspicions after police searched the homes of riders and staff of Team Bahrain Victorious on Monday.
French prosecutors opened a preliminary investigation into doping allegations against Bahrain Victorious after police searched the team's hotel late in last year's race, when they won three stages.
At the time, the prosecutor's office in Marseille said the investigation was into "acquisition, transport, possession, import of a prohibited substance or prohibited method for use by an athlete without medical justification".
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Hugh Lawson)