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Who to watch at the Tour de France based on sports you actually know

The 2015 Tour de France is shaping up to be ridiculously competitive, and ridiculously fun.

The Tour de France does so many things well -- the scenery, the chaos, the smooth voice of Phil Liggett, the butts -- that it doesn't really matter that the racing doesn't always measure up. But it's a damn shame when you finally think past the Tour's inherent draw. Last year's long coronation procession for Vincenzo Nibali felt incomplete. It lacked healthy drama. Chris Froome's Stage 5 withdrawal removed one prizefighter. Alberto Contador's Stage 10 crash K.O.'d another. All that was left was Nibali and a few encouraging performances by French youngsters.

The 2014 Tour de France wasn't the epic that a 3,600-kilometer race across cobblestones, through cities and over mountains ought to be. That shortcoming is due to be corrected by a 2015 field that is as strong as we've seen in a long time. "Battle Royale" is an apt descriptor. Four Grand Tour champions pace the pack ahead of a large and voracious second tier.

The world's best climbers, sprinter and all-arounders will have a ton of opportunities to shine on a course that features almost no off days. A treacherous first three stages in the Netherlands -- opening with a time trial -- gives way to more treachery (crosswinds! cobbles!) through Northwest France. Then it's the Pyrenees, the Alps and a stumble through Paris up to the Champs-Élysées.

The Tour de France is always worth your time, but as billed, the 2015 edition may be mandatory viewing.

Meet its cast of characters:


Chris Froome

The steely, mirth-deficient 2013 Tour winner who was supposed to dominate the field last year but was forced to abandon the race during Stage 5 due to a broken wrist.

You May Know Him From American Sports Teams Or People Such As: The San Antonio Spurs, who likewise were steadying for a preordained title run before getting hamstrung by injuries and knocked out early in the playoffs. They should bounce back just fine with even more resolve. Ditto for Froome.

Alberto Contador

Aggressive veteran who is just past the peak of age of most Tour de France champions but still riding strong and with abandon. He'll gun for the yellow jersey or die trying.

YMKHFASTOPSA: Serena Williams, who is universally recognized as championship contender despite her relatively advanced age for her sport. Like Serena, Contador seems like an implosion waiting to happen, but more often than not pulls off utter brilliance.

Vincenzo Nibali

Won the Tour de France last year by a wide margin, but was dinged for facing a "weak" field, with Froome and Contador hurt, and Nairo Quintana not riding.

YMKHFASTOPSA: The Golden State Warriors. Pretty easy comparison to this year's NBA champions based on results. Nibali also doesn't have the skill set of a "traditional" Tour winner -- he's probably the weakest climber of the Big Four, but perhaps the most technically sound and mentally tough.

Nairo Quintana

The darling of the Tour de France, Quintana was last seen in 2013 winning the white jersey as the best young rider. The 25-year-old Colombian rider is small and humble, and a fierce climber.

YMKHFASTOPSA: The Indianapolis Colts, or more specifically Andrew Luck. Quintana has superstardom written all over him. He's also mature beyond his years, having already become an important social advocate in his home country. A quiet personality and a big smile hides an intense competitor. Quintana has been incredible during his young career, and has the potential to be legendary.

HEROES (a.k.a., American hopefuls)

Tejay Van Garderen

The United States' best hope to produce a general classification champion. Van Garderen has been up-and-down in four trips to France -- finishing fifth twice and well out of contention the other two times -- but he's entering the Tour as strong as he ever has.

YMKHFASTOPSA: Van Garderen has heaps of talent, and in turn gets heaped with expectations that he has struggled to fulfill. Call him the Kansas Basketball of cycling. If he does make the final podium, you shouldn't be surprised.

Andrew Talansky

No one is sure what Talansky is going to do. He was riding extremely well last year, but back pain forced him out of the Tour after he made an awe-inspiring effort to complete Stage 11 and beat the cut. He hasn't done much in 2015, and yet ...

YMKHFASTOPSA: The Arizona Cardinals have gritted out 10- and 11-win seasons the last two years despite rosters decimated by injuries and awful quarterbacking. You can't really explain their success, and it's hard to really explain Talansky other than "he's really dang tough."


Thibaut Pinot

At 24 years old, he took third place at the 2014 Tour de France and won the white jersey as the best young rider. It was a glorious breakthrough for him and the country of France, and he had to overcome crippling fear of fast mountain descents to do it.

YMKHFLFSA: The head of his team compared him to Don Quixote, who is not a sports person but I won't trump the people who know Pinot best. "Don Quixote" was the adopted moniker of a Spanish nobleman who straddled sanity and madness trying to inject justice and chivalry into the world. Similarly, you might say Pinot is wound a little tight. He'll be attacking the mountains with an intensity unknown to man if he doesn't become a puddle of self-loathing beforehand.

Simon Yates

Incredibly young, just 22, which makes his potential to come out of nowhere and challenge the top of the general classification very high. Strong finishes this year suggest he's improving fast.

YMKHFASTOPSA: Pick a promising NBA rookie from last season, let's just say Andrew Wiggins. Yates is on pace to become a household name, and he can compete with the best at any given moment. But over the course of three weeks he may not be a top 10 rider.


Joaquim Rodriguez

Rodriguez finished third at his last healthy Tour de France, and there's a chance he's still one of the best climbers in the world. At 36, however, he's long past the age when a lot of great riders have begun fading away.

YMKHFASTOPSA: Kobe Bryant, minus the Machiavellian instincts. Rodriguez's power is still great, if perhaps dwindling. Unfortunately, his supporting cast is rather weak, so even if he is in perfect form he may struggle to keep up with the Tour's best riders.

Jean-Christophe Péraud

Péraud finish No. 2 last year, which even against a weakened field was something of a surprise. At 36, he likely won't be contending for a podium spot this year, but it won't be for a lack of effort.

YMKHFASTOPSA: A late stage Brett Favre, who noodled around trying to extend his career and stumbled upon a near MVP-caliber season with the Vikings in 2009. He wasn't as good in the immediate seasons before and after, and the 'Ol Gunslinger occasionally got himself into trouble by being, well, a gunslinger. Similarly, Péraud has never been shy to hop in a breakaway, even if it means failure.


Tons! From Pinot's slightly more agreeable young French running mate Romain Bardet, who finished sixth last year, to the quiet, humble and friendly elder statesman Haimar Zubeldia. We'll cut things off at 10 -- round numbers and all -- but you can check out in-depth profiles of these contenders and more at Podium Cafe, which also has a tremendous break down of the teams competing for glory.

This is going to be fun.