By Martyn Herman
UTRECHT, Netherlands (Reuters) - Chris Froome reckons there will be no phoney war when the Tour de France begins with a 14km individual time trial through the streets of the picturesque Dutch city Utrecht on Saturday.
The pancake flat loop will see the 198 riders put the hammer down in temperatures expected to reach 36 degrees Celsius and significant time advantages are up for grabs, according to the British rider who won the Tour in 2013 but abandoned last year after several crashes in the early stages.
"Tomorrow's prologue time trial is definitely the start of the GC (general classification) battle," 30-year-old all rounder Froome, one of the main favorites along with Spain's Alberto Contador, Italian Vincenzo Nibali and Colombia's Nairo Quintana.
"Even though it's short at just under 14km there can be time gaps and I believe there can be time gaps of 20 seconds between some of the main GC contenders."
While nothing will be won or lost in Utrecht, a poor ride or getting unlucky with some of the predicted thunderstorms could put some of the main contenders under early pressure.
With cobbled sections and uphill finishes to cope with in the first week or so, months of preparation could be ruined.
Add in a larger than usual pool of riders with GC potential and it is no wonder that Froome believes the 102nd Tour could be one of the "most contested" in recent years.
"The race is open, it's not just a two-horse race," he said. "It's a race where when we get to the mountains you can't just watch one guy, there is maybe a list of eight guys who if they go you have to react.
"That's the beautiful thing about this year's race. It's going to be full on."
Froome has a formidable team at his disposal including Australian Richie Porte, one of the most feared climbers in the peloton, British quartet Geraint Thomas, Pete Kennaugh, Ian Stannard and Luke Rowe and Czech Leopold Koenig.
Team boss Dave Brailsford said the lineup gives Sky the ability to be more pro-active than usual with more stage wins a possibility, rather than just plotting overall victory.
"We will race a bit more than maybe we have in previous years," he told reporters. "That will be the big difference. If the opportunities arise (for stage wins) we'll take them."
Asked about the make-up of the first nine stages, he said fans would be in for a treat.
"What we want in sport is suspense, variation, riders to be challenged in different ways. So different types of stages with a lot of variety is a good thing," he said.
"The way the race has been designed this year is very interesting, it's made for a great race."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)