PARIS (AP) — The Tour de France is like a good bouillabaisse, the traditional Mediterranean seafood stew. Take out one ingredient, and it does not taste the same.
The Tour starting on Saturday has all the ingredients in place:
—A nervy first week on treacherous roads.
—Towering mountains passes to climb.
—The grandest of finales up 21 hairpin bends to the Alpe d'Huez ski station.
—Four genuine contenders, the most in years, all at the top of their game.
This is the recipe for an appetizing three-week feast of cycling.
"The way the Tour is structured this year, it is really going to be an epic battle between the big rivals," 2013 champion Chris Froome said. "Probably the biggest battle we've seen for years in the Tour de France. It's really exciting."
The race between Froome, defending champ Vincenzo Nibali, two-time winner Alberto Contador, and 2014 Giro d'Italia champ Nairo Quintana promises to draw eyeballs from the very first stage, a 14-kilometer (8 1/2-mile) individual time trial in the Dutch city of Utrecht, the only solo stage against the clock.
Following an anti-clockwise path, the route takes the peloton across Belgium and through World War I battlefields before heading to the cycling-mad Brittany region.
The second half of the race features three days in the Pyrenees, and four in the Alps, with a climax at the Alpe d'Huez before the ceremonial ride leading to the final sprint on the Champs Elysees.
Organizers have drastically reduced the distance of time trials to ensure the Tour remains open until the final Alpine stage featuring the punishing climb to the ski resort.
There's a short team time trial in Brittany at the end of the first block of racing, a nine-day window filled with traps. During that time, Nibali and Co. will tackle cobblestones portions in northern France, make sure they don't get caught by bordures on roads open to crosswinds along the Dutch coast, and negotiate two short but difficult climbs: The Mur de Huy, the traditional finish of the Fleche Wallonne, and the Cote de Mur de Bretagne, which is nicknamed the Alpe d'Huez of Brittany.
"That first week really is going to be crucial, the first nine days actually until we get up in the mountains on stage 10," Froome said. "In my mind, it's almost as if each one of these nine stages is like a classic race in its own right."
The Team Sky leader has good reason to be worried about possible early pitfalls. As the defending champ last year, he was forced out during the fifth stage after two falls.
"There is a lot less pressure on my shoulders, (I'm) a lot more relaxed not coming as the defending champion," said Froome, who won the Criterium du Dauphine, the traditional Tour dress rehearsal.
"Things are looking good personally, my condition feels good, and the whole team is buzzing after winning the Dauphine. That's lifted everyone's morale."
But his main rivals are also in great shape, although there are question marks surrounding Quintana.
Given the hilly race profile — seven mountain stages including five summit finishes —the diminutive climber is expected to cause damage in the second half of the Tour in the Alps and the Pyrenees. But he comes in having raced only four days over the last two months, following a big block of training back home in Colombia.
Quintana, who made his breakthrough at the Tour in 2013 when he was runner-up to Froome, said preparing at home for the race was his best option.
"Things are less difficult when you're with your family. I had a month feeling comfortable, training well in a nice temperature, at altitude. It was good for me," said Quintana, who is sharing the Movistar lead with Spanish veteran Alejandro Valverde.
With Astana allowed to keep its WorldTour licence despite multiple doping offenses within the Kazakh-funded outfit, Nibali — a winner of all three Grand Tours — will be backed by arguably the strongest team in the field in his bid to defend his title. Like in 2014, the Italian has been discreet, saving himself for the Tour.
Contador has opted for a completely different approach in a bid to become the first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve a Giro-Tour double. After recovering from his success in Italy, and spending days training in altitude, the Tinkoff-Saxo leader recently won the Route du Sud, where he defeated Quintana.
"The Route du Sud ... doesn't change anything in view of the Tour de France," Contador said. "It would be a mistake to change the mindset right now, thinking that this win would give me more confidence."
Desperately waiting for its first winner in 30 years, the host nation will be cheering for Thibault Pinot and Romain Bardet, who hope to follow in the footsteps of five-time Tour winner Bernard Hinault, the last Frenchman to triumph.
Pinot finished third last year and earned the white jersey as the best young rider, while Bardet distinguished himself with a win in the French Alps at the Dauphine, on the same route the Tour peloton will ride on stage 17.
"This Tour won't be a four-way battle," Quintana warned. "Watch out for Pinot, Bardet, and (American Tejay) Van Garderen. A single attack from one of these guys, and the Tour could be over if we don't respond quickly enough."
Nothing wrong with extra ingredients.