By Julien Pretot
PARIS (Reuters) - Alberto Contador will cement his status as the best grand tour rider of the modern era if he emerges as the winner of the Big Four's battle royale at the Tour de France -- the most highly anticipated race in decades.
The Spaniard is looking to achieve the Giro d'Italia/Tour double for the first time since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 but the competition has never been fiercer for the seven-time grand tour champion who will retire at the end of next year.
Chris Froome, the 2013 champion, and Nairo Quintana, who hopes to become the first Colombian to win the Tour, look fresher while defending champion Vincenzo Nibali will also be in the mix on a treacherous course.
The first goal will be to make it to the first rest day after riding on cobbles, through potentially bunch-splitting winds and mastering dangerous courses as well as a tricky team time trial, a discipline Team Sky have failed to master lately.
"Organizers want to create a show every day, but they put the riders at risk," Eusebio Unzue, Quintana's Movistar team manager, told Reuters.
Last year, Froome and Contador crashed out of the Tour and Nibali powered to victory as Quintana had skipped the race.
This time, all four should be in decent shape when the three-week race starts in Utrecht, Netherlands, on Saturday.
Should they fail, a swarm of second fiddles or young guns led by France's Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet, will be ready to seize their opportunity in a very mountainous Tour.
"If one of them (Pinot, Bardet or American Tejay van Garderen) attacks and we start looking at each other, it could change the Tour," said Quintana, whose ability to attack far from the finish could disrupt Froome's well-oiled Team Sky machine.
Nibali, whose Astana team came close to losing their license over doping problems, have looked out of from lately but he retained his Italian title last weekend in aggressive fashion, suggesting he has the legs to unsettle his rivals in the first week on the cobbles, just like he did last year.
Contador, similarly, will use every opportunity to aggress Froome, and the Tinkoff-Saxo rider has probably marked the dangerous descent from the col d'Allos (stage 17), the highest point of the Tour, as an attacking chance.
The last Tour featuring so many big guns was probably the vintage 1986 edition won by American Greg LeMond.;
This year's race also features a handful of outsiders, such as Pinot, Bardet, Van Garderen and also France's Warren Barguil and Britain's Simon Yates, plus Spanish veterans Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez.
Even if first-week stages usually reserved for them will finish uphill (Mur de Huy, Mur de Bretagne in stages 3 and 8), the sprinters will get their chance to shine.
All signs point to a duel between the resurgent Mark Cavendish of Britain -- looking to improve from his 25 stage wins -- and man-of-the-season Alexander Kristoff of Norway in the absence of German Marcel Kittel, with another German, Andre Greipel, looking to snatch stage wins.
They will be challenged in the points classification by Germany's John Degenkolb, Slovakia's Peter Sagan and Frenchmen Bryan Coquard and Nacer Bouhanni.
For the first time an African team will be on the Tour when MTN-Qhubeka line up at the start in Utrecht.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ken Ferris)