The 102nd edition of the Grand Boucle starts with a short race against the clock around Utrecht in the Netherlands.
The ‘fantastic four’ overall favourites of champion Vincenzo Nibali, Giro d’Italia laureate Alberto Contador and the two men they succeeded, Chris Froome (2013 Tour winner) and Nairo Quintana (Giro victor in 2014) are unlikely to challenge for the victory on Saturday, although they will be looking to make time gains or limit losses against each other.
Of the quartet, Froome is widely regarded as the strongest timetriallist and Quintana the weakest, so the race will be on to see how much time Briton can put into the Colombian.
But at the front of the race, Cancellara, 34, will be aiming to win an opening Tour stage or prologue for the sixth time, and don the famous yellow jersey for perhaps the last time.
The Swiss known as Spartacus admitted this could be his last Tour.
“I thought about this could be my last participation and last possibility to arrive in Paris, yes this is in my mind,” he said Thursday.
Cancellara is probably not the favourite, though, despite his incredible timetrial record, winning Olympic gold in 2008 and four world titles.
German Tony Martin has surpassed Cancellara in recent years as the king of the timetrials, winning three straight world titles from 2011-2013 before he was beaten by current Olympic champion Bradley Wiggins last year.
Martin rarely loses a timetrial and has won three at the Tour since 2011 — missing out only in 2012 when Wiggins again was in his pomp.
Martin won timetrials at the Volta ao Algarve and Tour de Romandie earlier this year and those were similarly short at 19km and 17km respectively.
– really special –
But perhaps the smart money will be on Dutchman Tom Dumoulin who is riding at home. He is a growing force in timetrials and beat Cancellara in two races against the clock at the recent Tour of Switzerland.
He was third at the timetrial world championships last year, 40 seconds behind Wiggins.
And while he may not yet be able to beat Martin over a similar distance to that — it was a 47km course in Ponferrada — over the shorter distance and roared on by a partisan crowd, many feel Dumoulin could have the edge.
The 24-year-old is looking forward to the challenge.
“It will be really, really special and we saw last year in England when we started there it was absolutely incredible to have all the crowds there and I hope it will be the same or even better here,” he said.
Other potential winners include Australia’s Rohan Dennis and Mathias Brandle of Austria.
Both briefly held the world hour record recently before Wiggins stretched that out to a mark that will be hard to match.
Brandle managed 51.852km in October last year but just over three months later Dennis pushed it out to 52.491km, although that mark lasted less than three months before Britain’s Alex Dowsett added another 500m and then Wiggins put 1.5km on top of that.
In fact, Dowsett is another who could be in contention on Saturday and all three could pull a surprise on the likes of Martin, Cancellara and Dumoulin.
As for Froome, Contador, Nibali and Quintana, it will be a first chance to gain a psychological boost in the race for the yellow jersey, which will likely be decided in the high mountains in the final week.
There will also be a few outsiders, including the likes of young French pair Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot who will be eager to show they have the form to make a charge for a podium finish.
And with temperatures expected to hit around 35 degrees celsius (95 fahrenheit), Saturday’s stage promises to be a scorcher.
A list of the Tour de France winners over the last 25 years, ahead of the start of the 2015 edition in Utrecht, Netherlands, on July 4:
2014 – Vincenzo Nibali (ITA) Astana
2013 – Chris Froome (GBR) Team Sky
2012 – Bradley Wiggins (GBR) Team Sky
2011 – Cadel Evans (AUS) BMC
2010 – *** Andy Schleck (LUX) Saxo Bank
2009 – Alberto Contador (ESP) Astana
2008 – Carlos Sastre (ESP) CSC
2007 – Alberto Contador (ESP) Discovery
2006 – ** Oscar Pereiro (ESP) Caisse d’Epargne
2005 – *
2004 – *
2003 – *
2002 – *
2001 – *
2000 – *
1999 – *
1998 – Marco Pantani (ITA) Mercatone Uno
1997 – Jan Ulrich (GER) Telekom
1996 – Bjarne Riise (DEN) Telekom
1995 – Miguel Indurain (ESP) Banesto
1994 – Miguel Indurain (ESP) Banesto
1993 – Miguel Indurain (ESP) Banesto
1992 – Miguel Indurain (ESP) Banesto
1991 – Miguel Indurain (ESP) Banesto
1990 – Greg Lemond (USA) Z Vetements
Note: * Lance Armstrong was stripped of his seven consecutive victories from 1999 to 2005 for systematic doping and the title left vacant.
** The 2006 Tour was originally won by American Floyd Landis but he was later stripped of victory for doping.
*** Alberto Contador originally won the 2010 Tour but was stripped of victory for doping.
– Agence France-Presse