The Tour de France begins today!

The world’s greatest cycling event, the Tour de France, gets underway today when the best riders on the planet descend on Rotterdam in the Netherlands for a short 8.9km (5.5 mile) prologue that will help set the early tone to this year’s event. Ahead of the teams sits 20 more grueling stages, spread out over three weeks, that includes six mountain stages, with three summit finishes, one of which ends on the dreaded Tourmalet, a brutal peak in the Pyrenees that will likely decide this year’s winner.

The race properly gets underway tomorrow with a mostly flat first stage over 223.5km (138.8 miles) between Rotterdam and Brussels. This stage is dedicated to the sports greatest rider, Eddy Merckx, who is celebrating his 65th birthday, and he’ll likely be on hand to welcome the cyclists across the finish line. But the peloton shouldn’t take this stage lightly, as the Belgian crosswinds can shred the field and leave the unaware chasing the leaders on the first day.

Typically, the early stages of the Tour belong to the sprinters, who rack up points on the flat routes as they compete for the coveted Green Jersey. But this year, the riders will be put to the test early on, as Stage 2 is a 201km (124.8 miles) affair that goes from Brussels to Spa, with a few minor hills thrown into the mix. While the Tour’s top climbers and over all contenders will barely notice these bumps in the road, the sprinters are likely to drop from contention very early this year.

Stage 3 on Tuesday is no walk in the park either. The 213km (132.3 miles) route will be flat and fast, just as the sprinters like it. But there are nearly 9 miles worth of cobblestones for the riders to maneuver, and the riders hate cobblestones. Lance Armstrong himself has even predicted “carnage” on this stage following a scouting ride a few days back. The rough, and uneven, cobblestones are known for causing crashes, and ending the race early for some of the riders.

This year’s top contenders are pretty much the same as last year’s top finishers. 38-year old Lance Armstrong remains among the best riders in the field, although his time trial form is not what it once was. Brothers Andy and Frank Schleck of Luxembourg are both legitimate contenders, with Frank recently winning the Tour de Suisse, a great tune-up race for Le Tour. Australian Cadel Evans has been a perennial contender who has just missed out on winning on several occasions, and he is riding with his strongest team ever. But the man to beat is obviously last year’s champ, Alberto Contador, the best all around rider in the world. But Contador won’t have the powerful team around him that he had in his previous two Tour victories, and it remains to be seen if he can win without them.

The Tour de France is a sporting event like no other, and over the next few weeks, a dramatic spectacle will play out across France, culminating with cycling’s next great champion arriving in Paris, and gliding down the Champs-Elysees in yellow.

Viva Le Tour!