The 2014 road season is just around the corner, and with most of the major race routes announced, the world's biggest riders are deciding on their race programs for the year. The WorldTour starts once again not in France or Belgium the traditional hotbeds of cycling, but in Australia, with the Tour Down Under.
The race has evolved from a pure sprinter's race to a week-long test of form for the strong men of the peloton, with many riders using the warm weather and tough sharp climbs as a training week for the Spring Classics. Cadel Evans will make a welcome return to his homeland as he prepares for the Giro d'Italia, and Andre Greipel returns to try and maintain his dominance in the sprint finishes.
After the peloton conquers the warm climates of Dubai, Qatar and Oman, the WorldTour continues with Paris-Nice and Tirreno-Adriatico. This two-week period is one of the busiest in the calendar, as all WorldTour teams send two of their best squads to key races.
Paris-Nice has cemented its place as a prestigious element of the cycling calendar, with big name winners such as Eddy Merckx and Sean Kelly. This year Giro d'Italia champion Vincenzo Nibali will be making an appearance, along with Tour de France hopefuls Andy and Frank Schleck.
Vincenzo Nibali's absence means Tirreno-Adriatico will be starting without a defending champion. However, there are ample names that will be able to replace him. Tour de France champion Chris Froome will most likely be present, along with Fabian Cancellara, who will be in his final tune-up for Milan-San Remo.
Speaking of the sprinter's classic, Milan-San Remo has undergone a route change for 2014, omitting the climb of Le Manie, but adding the Pompeiana climb between the Cipressa and the Poggio. This makes the race much harder, making it easier for climbers such as Vincenzo Nibali and Joaquim Rodriguez to distance the big name sprinters. It will certainly be interesting to see how Peter Sagan fares on the new course.
Flanders and Roubaix promise to be exciting once again this year, with Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara slogging it out on the legendary cobblestones. Boonen looks to have recovered from the woes of 2013, when he nearly lost an arm in a freak infection, and Cancellara is set to have a bumper year, once he has completed the Spring Classics, he intends to attempt the Hour Record.
The Volta a Catalunya and the Tour of the Basque Country may be quieter this year without the bright orange presence of Euskaltel-Euskadi in the peloton, but the presence of Alberto Contador, along with Colombians Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Uran means the races will be as open as ever.
This year's Giro d'Italia will follow the Ardennes Classics and the Tour de Romandie, and has an exciting field ready to be let loose in Belfast. Joaquim Rodriguez, Cadel Evans, Richie Porte, Michele Scarponi and Ivan Basso are just a few of the contenders for the Maglia Rosa this May.
The amount of time trialling kilometres promises to serve an all rounder well, making the Australians Porte and Evans two of the leading favourites. Mark Cavendish will also be present in order to pick up some more stage wins, he took five in his most successful Giro to date in 2013.
The Criterium du Dauphine and the Tour de Suisse will be the customary pre-Tour tune-ups once again this year. Should the Tour winner take the Dauphine too, this will be the third year running in which the Tour de France winner has won the prestigious week-long test.
The Tour de France is starting in Britain this year, and the Grand Depart in Leeds promises to be one of the year's highlights for the British cycling community. The 101st Tour promises to be one of the most exciting on record, with Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Alberto Contador all going for the win. If all three are on peak form come July, it will be difficult to predict a winner.
The sprint battle at the Tour de France also rages on. Mark Cavendish, winner of twenty five stages, but only two last year, has promised he will be in peak form this year, and with lead-out man Mark Renshaw back at his side, the Manxman may be difficult to beat. We can't forget Marcel Kittel however, he won four stages this year, and his Argos-Shimano train proved incredibly strong.
It is looking unlikely that the Vuelta a Espana will start with the defending champion Chris Horner in the field this year. The 42-year old American is still without a team for 2014, and the most likely team to sign him at the moment looks like Christina Watches, a team that will not get invited to La Vuelta. Instead, it looks like the 2012 podium of Alberto Contador, Alejandro Valverde and Joaquim Rodriguez will fight for the victory.
The world's best riders will stay in Spain this year for the World Championships. They will be held in the city of Ponferrada, and a lumpy course for the road race means sprinters will be out of the equation once again. Tony Martin will be looking for a record-equalling fourth time trial world championship, and with Fabian Cancellara looking more towards the Hour Record and the Spring Classics, it is hard to see the big German being beaten.
2014 promises to be incredibly exciting year for road cycling. Hopefully this is the year that doping speculations will be put behind us, and the cycling public can finally believe in what they are seeing on the professional circuit.