Riders and fans gear up for 2019 Tour de France

2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas, pictured taking part in the 2018 Tour of Britain

Key absences mean the 106th Tour is regarded as the most open for several years

The 106th Tour de France starts in Brussels on Saturday, July 6 - without notable names such as four-time champion Chris Froome and 30-time stage winner Mark Cavendish.

Team Ineos' Froome suffered a broken leg, ribs and elbow in a crash during the Critérium du Dauphiné in June. He was briefly in intensive care following the accident, which has forced his absence from the Tour for the first time since he made his debut in 2012.

Cavendish, meanwhile, was not named in Team Dimension Data’s eight-strong squad on July 2 - missing out on selection for the Tour de France for the first time since his debut in 2007. It he will have to wait at least one more year to close the gap on Belgian cycling legend Eddie Merckx's record of 34 stage wins.

Despite the absences, it promises to be an enthralling race - with riders regarding it as the most open for several years.

Ineos' squad - formerly Team Sky, which won six Tours in seven seasons includes 2018 champion Geraint Thomas, whose preparations have been far from ideal. He crashed out of last month's Tour de Suisse, his final preparation race, and was forced to abandon the Tirreno-Adriatico in March with stomach problems.

But Team Ineos' co-captain Thomas remains one of the favourites - alongside team-mate Egan Bernal.

Read more: Handy French phrases to know for Le Tour

France's main hopes for a first Tour winner in 34 years rest with UCI WorldTeam AG2R La Mondiale rider Romain Bardot and Groupama-FDJ's Thibaut Pinot. Last year's King of the Mountains Julian Alaphilippe may also be an outside bet.

Following the Grand Depart - held in Belgium to mark the 50th anniversary of five-time winner Merckx's first Tour de France title - this year's race will take in a route 3,480km across 21 stages and finish on 28 July, on Paris's Champs-Elysees.

After a second stage in Belgium, the peloton will enter France on day three of the race

As in 2018, there are two time trials - the first of which is a team time trial around Brussels on stage two, with an individual one around Pau on stage 13.

There are seven mountain stages with five summit finishes at Tourmalet and Foix Prat d'Albis in the Pyrenees, and La Planche des Belles Filles, Tignes and Val Thorens in the Alps. Three of those finishes are - for the first time in a single race in Tour history - at altitudes of more than 2,000m.

Tourmalet is well-known to Tour aficionados. It has been welcomed racers 82 times, more than any other pass, and was key to both Froome and Thomas' wins in 2016 and 2018.

Up to 12 million fans are expected to line the route, watching 176 riders from 22 teams, compete for the coveted yellow jersey.

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