By Julien Pretot
NICE, France (Reuters) - Champion Egan Bernal will start the Tour de France as the favourite and sole Ineos leader after a major team shake-up, but Primoz Roglic leads the charge of the challengers.
However, injuries to both the favourites have fuelled hopes that Thibaut Pinot, who was among the contenders last year before a torn thigh muscle forced him to drop out, could become the first Frenchman to win the world's greatest cycle race since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Slovenian Roglic crashed during the Criterium du Dauphine and did not start the last stage, one day after Bernal pulled out before the start of the penultimate stage with back pains.
The Colombian was training on his bike the same day, though, while Roglic spent several days off the bike.
When the race starts on Saturday -- nine weeks behind schedule because of the COVID-19 pandemic -- Bernal's training and Roglic's lack of it might speak volumes.
While Roglic's form at the Dauphine had many tipping him as favourite for the Tour, the Vuelta champion and his team Jumbo-Visma have never faced the intense pressure of defending the yellow jersey deep into the race.
Bernal, who boasts impressive power on the long climbs, will have Ineos boss Dave Brailsford's tactical acumen on his side.
Ineos were even bold enough to leave out four-time Tour winner Chris Froome and 2018 champion Geraint Thomas after both appeared out of form in the lead-up to the Tour.
But that does not mean Brailsford is short of options and in Giro d'Italia champion Richard Carapaz they have another rider who could challenge for overall victory and hand Ineos (formerly Team Sky) an eighth Tour win in nine years.
Apart from Bernal's triumph in 2019, Ineos's Tour victories have been delivered by British riders. Next year they could continue that tradition as they will have Adam Yates in their ranks after announcing that he will join them from Mitchelton-Scott.
For now, however, Yates will be trying to deliver a long-overdue impact on a Grand Tour as a parting gift.
Triple world champion Peter Sagan will be gunning for a record-extending eighth green jersey for the points classification while the sprinting field will be an open one after Dylan Groenewegen was ruled out following a crash at the Tour of Poland that sent fellow sprinter Fabio Jakobsen to hospital.
Riders have not all geared up for the season's main event in the same fashion as some spent weeks in lockdown while others were free to ride outdoors amid the pandemic.
Once racing resumed at the beginning of the month, however, the top contenders have looked sharp although untimely injuries and the ever-present COVID-19 cloud make picking a winner a challenging business.
Colombian Dani Martinez, who won the Criterium du Dauphine, the traditional warm-up race to the Tour, will have an outside chance on his debut within the EF-Education First Step that features former podium finisher and compatriot Rigoberto Uran.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)