The 2018 Tour de France is almost here. Tune in for the action, stay for the scenery (or vice-versa).
This is a sporting event that has massive appeal. It is also a complex beast which can be a little overwhelming to the casual observer.
But the basic premise is as follows: For three weeks and 21 stages, cyclists from 22 teams race around France, aiming to reach Paris on the final Sunday with the fastest cumulative time.
He who does that is the champion.
Le Tour has been part of the sporting landscape since 1903 and it captures the imagination of millions around the world each year. What was once a Eurocentric event has morphed into a truly global celebration of cycling.
From July 7-29, 2018, the 105th edition will be contested by 176 riders and the Australian influence is likely to be significant.
With a little over a week to go before the 'Grand Départ', exactly which riders will be present is still not certain, but it is plausible that 2018 will equal the record tally of Australian starters.
To date, the highest number of Australian participants in one edition is 12; that was in 2012 when, for the first time, an Australian-registered team earned a start, and a year after an Australian won the title for the first time.
Back then, there were 198 starters (nine for each team), but a significant amendment has been made this year and there are now eight riders per team.
Some teams have announced their rider selections, others will do so in the next week. We can assume that between 10 and 11 Australians will be at the start in the Vendée.
From an Australian perspective, the headline act is Richie Porte. The 33-year-old, riding his third season with the BMC Racing team, has started every Tour since 2011; he is one of the favourites for the title.
Likely to be joining him at the BMC Racing Team is former stage winner (and yellow jersey wearer), Simon Gerrans — the most experienced of the current generation of Australian Tour riders who, at 38, is expected to contest the race for the 12th (and final) time in 2018.
There are 28 other Australians on teams that will be racing the Tour this year and, of this collective, four are confirmed starters (all with the Australian team, Mitchelton-Scott): Luke Durbridge (27), Mathew Hayman (40), Michael Hepburn (26) and Damien Howson (25).
The other likely starters are, in alphabetical order: Simon Clarke (EF-Drapac, 31), Heinrich Haussler (Team Bahrain-Merida, 34), Michael Matthews (Sunweb, 27), Mark Renshaw (Dimension Data, 35) and Rory Sutherland (UAE Team Emirates, 36).
Overnight it was announced Nathan Haas would not be part of the Katusha-Alpecin Tour selection.
"I'm in some of the best form and condition I can be in," he said shortly after learning the news, "so I'm finding this decision very hard".
Porte the main Australian 'GC' contender
Richie Porte has been lauded as the most likely successor to Australia's first Tour de France champion, Cadel Evans. Despite setbacks, the Tasmanian believes he is in better shape in the lead up to the Tour than ever before and he's comfortable with his role as leader of a strong 'GC' team.
The 'general classification' is the main prize of the Tour; there are many other categories but the 'GC' eclipses them all. The yellow jersey denotes the leader of this classification. (There are also green, polka-dot and white jerseys for the leaders of the points classification, climbing classification and youth classification, respectively.)
Porte has never won a stage, nor worn the Tour's yellow jersey, but he is in great shape and he's happy with the lead-up even though it has been a different approach in 2018 to his previous attempts.
"I got sick at the start of the year, in February," he said at the end of May, only days before the birth of his first child and in advance of his final race in the lead-up to July, the Tour de Suisse [which he went on to win].
"Maybe being ill at that time of year might actually be a blessing in disguise."
Instead of needing to peak several times in the season, there's been steady progress and although he beat other Tour contenders, like Nairo Quintana, at the Tour de Suisse he insists his best is yet to come.
The Tour de France is the biggest event in road cycling but it's one of many races in a season that spans from January to November. In 2018, Porte will have had 36 race days before the Tour (equal to 4,713km of competition for the year) and he's comfortable with his form 12 months on from the accident that knocked him out of contention for the yellow jersey — and out of the Tour — in stage nine last year.
"I think I just bounced," he said of the crash, before adding: "which is a good thing."
It was fast, unavoidable, and terribly violent. One moment he was ranked fifth on GC, only 39 seconds shy of the yellow jersey, the next he was lying idle on the road after thumping into a rock wall at +/- 75km/h.
Cycling can be beautiful but it's also particularly cruel. When things go wrong at that speed, there's not much that can be done to avoid injury. Porte sustained fractures of a collarbone and his pelvis.
He abandoned the Tour for the first time. But his team never lost faith. He will be back on the start line in 2018 as the outright leader at BMC and, he says, he's ready to win.
He has recovered from his illness and the injuries from a year ago and found winning form at just the right time. He won the Tour de Suisse a fortnight after the arrival of his son, Luca.
Porte is one of a rare breed in cycling: A 'GC Guy', but during his formative years, despite his ability, he raced in the service of others and was regarded as a 'super-domestique'. It just so happened that he fulfilled his duties for the Tour champions in 2012 (Bradley Wiggins), as well as 2013 and 2015 (Chris Froome, both times).
In 2018, Porte is a leader at one of the stronger teams and he'll be at the Tour chasing the title as one of the favourites.
Australia is out of the World Cup — which will conclude on the day of stage nine of the Tour de France is contested — and, in the coming weeks, there's every reason for sports fans to turn their attention to cycling. There's a lot to see — scenery and action and, possibly, another Aussie win.
The Australian contingent
Road cycling is very much a team sport. There is only one champion of the Tour but there are plenty of periphery prizes and chores for the domestiques of the peloton. Here is a brief overview of the strengths of the likely Australian starters…
Simon Clarke (Victoria)
Team: EF-Drapac. Age: 31
Winner of a stage and the King of the Mountains crown of the 2012 Vuelta a España (Tour of Spain), Clarke was a team-mate of last year's runner-up at the Tour, Rigoberto Uran of Colombia.
Their team has been renamed from Cannondale-Drapac in 2017 to EF Education First-Drapac in 2018. A clever tactician and capable climber, Clarke will be the road captain for his US-registered team and a strong asset for Uran.
Luke Durbridge* (WA)
Team: Mitchelton-Scott. Age: 27
Durbridge is a multiple time trial world champion (junior and under-23) who crashed out of the Tour in stage one last year. He is a powerhouse on the flat roads who will provide great support for Adam Yates, the Brit who won the Tour's white jersey in his previous participation (2016).
The team time trial of stage three will be a chance for 'Turbo Durbo' to shine — and possibly even stand on the podium alongside his teammates.
Simon Gerrans* (Victoria)
Team: BMC Racing. Age: 38
'Gerro' was on the cusp of retiring at the end of 2017 but then he received an offer he couldn't refuse: to join Richie Porte in his quest to win the Tour. The veteran who has won stages of the Giro d'Italia, Tour de France and Vuelta a España is one of Australia's most accomplished cyclists.
He has won stages at the Tour and worn the yellow jersey in the past but, in 2018, he will be committed to helping Porte. Tactically savvy, cunning and super-professional, he will be an asset for BMC's attempt to win a second title.
Heinrich Haussler* (NSW)
Team: Bahrain-Merida. Age: 34
It's likely that 'Heino' will be on the roster for the team that boasts 2014 Tour champion, Vincenzo Nibali. "I'm doing all the training camps with the Tour team," he said earlier this week, "but I'm still waiting to find out if I'm going to be there in July".
He won a stage of the Tour in 2009 with a brilliant long-range attack in horrendous wet conditions. A knee injury sidelined him for much of 2017 but he's back to peak form and will be an asset to his Sicilian team leader …
Mathew Hayman* (ACT)
Team: Mitchelton-Scott. Age: 40
Famous for winning Paris-Roubaix in 2016 (his 17th attempt at the celebrated one-day classic), Hayman is the elder statesman of the Australian contingent in the WorldTour peloton.
His Tour de France history is only relatively brief: three starts to date … but there's a wealth of experience in a range of other races.
The inclusion of a stage on the cobbled roads made famous by Paris-Roubaix helped ensure Hayman earned a start in 2018.
He is strong, capable, powerful and we're likely to see a lot of him at the head of the peloton when pacing is required on the flatter stages.
Michael Hepburn* (Queensland)
Team: Mitchelton-Scott. Age: 26
A Tour debutant, 'Heppy' has a history as a track rider (winning silver in the team pursuit in Rio 2016) and time trial specialist. His inclusion in the line-up caught a few by surprise in June when the team altered its original approach — to have both a GC leader and sprint specialist, Caleb Ewan, at the Tour.
Ewan has been linked to other teams for 2019 onwards and this may have swayed the decision-making process for the line-up come July. Like Hayman, Hepburn is going to be an asset for Adam Yates on the flat roads.
Damien Howson* (SA)
Team: Mitchelton-Scott. Age: 25
The under-23 time trial world champion from 2013, Howson is also a star on the climb. He was a key member of his Australian team in 2016 when Orica-GreenEdge (as it was then known) put its charismatic Colombian recruit Esteban Chaves on the podium at both the Giro d'Italia (2nd) and Vuelta a España (3rd). Howson and Spanish teammate Mikel Nieve will be the support cast for Adam Yates in the high mountains of the Tour in 2018. The South Australian is one of the most underrated cyclists of his generation, a valuable super-domestique in 2018 … and possible GC rider for the future.
Michael Matthews (ACT)
Team: Sunweb. Age: 27
Winner of three stages at the past two Tours de France, Matthews is also the defending champion of the points classification. He won the green jersey in fine style last year thanks to a committed team effort.
With another Australian, Luke Roberts, as part of the coaching staff at Sunweb, every point was considered and tactics were employed to eke out a way to overcome rivals like Peter Sagan and Marcel Kittel. The Slovakian and German didn't reach Paris in 2017 and Matthews took the green jersey with speed, resilience … a hint of panache and also a surprising humility. It remains to be seen how Sunweb manage the talents of Matthews and GC contender, 2017 Giro d'Italia champion Tom Dumoulin.
Richie Porte* (Tasmania)
Team: BMC Racing. Age: 33
In 2018, the Australian candidate for victory at the Tour is the 33-year-old Richie Porte who, since 2016, has also been part of the BMC Racing line-up.
He made his debut in a 'Grand Tour' in 2010, leading the Giro d'Italia for three stages and winning the youth classification.
He raced the Tour alongside the champions in 2012, 2013 and 2015 and then joined BMC as a leader in his own right. He is one of the finest climbers in cycling and capable of becoming the second Australian Tour de France champion.
Mark Renshaw (NSW)
Team: Dimension Data. Age: 35
He could return for his 10th Tour but it hasn't yet been confirmed. A key teammate for many of Mark Cavendish's many stage wins at the Tour, Renshaw hasn't been terribly prominent in races early in 2018 but if the team decides to chase more stage wins for the Manxman, then Renshaw will be a key contributor to the lead-out train.
He is tactically brilliant, has impressive top-end speed and a wealth of experience. Furthermore, he is able to manage the quirks of his good friend, the sprint maestro who has collected 30 stage wins to date.
Rory Sutherland (ACT)
Team: UAE Team Emirates. Age: 36
It seems that 2018 is the year that Sutherland will finally make his Tour debut. After several seasons as a member of the Spanish Movistar team, the 36-year-old has joined UAE Team Emirates as it builds its GC ambitions with the recruitment of Irishman Dan Martin.
In the lead-up to the Tour, Sutherland has been following the same program as Martin (6th in 2017). If he is selected — and this is highly likely — we'll see a lot of Sutherland at the front of the bunch as it chases breakaways. He can also grind away at a such a speed that it wards off potential attacks from rival teams.
*Denotes riders who have been confirmed as starters at the time of writing.