By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - A mouth-watering four-way tussle for the Tour de France title and Bradley Wiggins's challenges on the Paris-Roubaix and the hour record promise to make 2015 a vintage year for cycling.
Defending champion Vincenzo Nibali, 2013 winner Chris Froome, double champion Alberto Contador and the indefatigable Nairo Quintana are expected to fight it out for the yellow jersey on a Tour tailor-made for pure climbers.
Spaniard Contador is planning to take the toughest road to Paris as he will also compete in the Giro d'Italia, looking to become the first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve that particular double.
"He knows how to get ready for them and if anyone can back up the Giro/Tour then I would say he's the guy to do it," Briton Froome told Cycling Weekly.
"It's not only difficult, it's risky," Contador, one of only six men with wins in all three grands tours, said.
Like Froome, Nibali will avoid a heavy race schedule ahead of the Tour in order to stay as fresh as possible.
The Italian, who was dominant on all terrains in last year's race, will face increased scrutiny as his Astana team are on the radar of the International Cycling Union (UCI) following a string of doping cases last season.
Having abandoned hope of securing a second Tour title after his 2012 triumph, Wiggins, who reverts to track cycling midway through the season with an eye on the 2016 Olympics, is taking aim at the Paris-Roubaix in April -- tackling the cobblestones prior to the wooden boards of the velodrome.
Victory in the Queen of the Classics, added to his road and track Olympic gold medals and his Tour de France crown, would make the Briton one of most versatile riders of all time, especially if he goes on to break the hour record.
The revamped hour record is currently held by Austrian Mathias Brandle but it is not expected to withstand the challenges of Australians Rohan Dennis and Jack Bobridge, before world time trial champion Wiggins has his tilt.
The Team Sky rider will then leave the road for good to focus on his 2016 Olympic challenge, leaving it to Froome to help the British outfit show more than last year, when Dave Brailsford's squad disappointed on the Tour.
The world's greatest cycling race will also reveal whether the French renaissance led by Jean-Christophe Peraud and Thibaut Pinot, who finished second and third respectively in 2014, is the 'real deal' and not just a flash in the pan.
Their performances indicate a revival is gathering pace and there could be more to come with Warren Barguil showing at last year's Vuelta that he too would be a force to be reckoned with in the French ranks.
This season will also be the occasion for Slovakian prodigy Peter Sagan, who joined Contador's Tinkoff-Saxo team, to show he has what it takes to win one of the 'Monument' classics.
German Marcel Kittel, the best sprinter in 2014, will have to hold off the fresh challenge of Norway's Alexander Kristoff, while Briton Mark Cavendish will be looking to fight his way back to the front having massively underperformed last season.
Other sprinters to watch in 2015 include Germans Andre Greipel and John Degenkolb as well as France's Arnaud Demare and Nacer Bouhanni, who are not on the same team anymore after the latter left FDJ for Cofidis.
With one year to go before the 2016 Olympics, the track cycling world championships being held in France next month will be of greater importance to those seeking to hone preparations ahead of the Rio Games.
(Editing by John O'Brien)