Come along for the ride: Five reasons to follow the Tour de France

Geraint Thomas will be Team Ineos' joint leader alongside Egan Bernal when the Tour de France begins in Brussels on Saturday. Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

The 106th Tour de France begins Saturday in Brussels, and ends 22 days later in Paris. The peloton of 176 riders across 22 eight-man teams will cover 3,460 kilometers (2,150 miles) including a record 30 mountain climbs, seven high-mountain stages, and five summit finishes. It's a climber's race.

Unlike years past, the 2019 Tour looks to be a wide-open edition. Geraint Thomas, the surprise overall winner in 2018, is returning to defend his title, however the second through fourth place finishers are not competing due to injury or fatigue. Thomas may see his biggest challenge come from within his own team, as 22-year-old Colombian Egan Bernal is perhaps the best climber in pro cycling. Outside of Team Ineos, there are more than a dozen riders capable of reaching the podium in Paris, and they'll be playing off the dynamics between the Ineos teammates as the route tilts skyward.

1. Why is the Tour starting in Brussels?

This year's race marks the 50th anniversary of the first Tour win by Belgian Eddy Merckx, the most successful professional cyclist in history. During his reign from 1969 through 1975, Merckx won essentially every major race in the sport, including five Tour titles, all of the sport's most important one-day races, and a world championship. The Tour will honor Merckx with three stages in Belgium; the opening stage includes the Muur van Geraardsbergen, a cobbled climb made famous by the Tour of Flanders that was featured at the 1969 Tour, where a 24-year-old Merckx won for the first time.

2. Who are the sprinters to watch?

Two of the most successful sprinters of recent Tours de France, Marcel Kittel and Fernando Gaviria, won't be racing. But there are still plenty of fast finishers to light up the sprint stages. Among them are Italian Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Australian Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal), Dutch rider Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma), and Slovakian star Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who is chasing a record-breaking seventh green points jersey.

3. Can a Frenchman win this year?

C'est possible. In Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, France has two outside shots at ending the drought that has lasted since Bernard Hinault's last Tour win in 1985. Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) finished on the podium in 2016 and 2017, and finished sixth last year; he'll benefit from the many summit finishes in the final week. Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) finished third in 2014, and has top-10 finishes at the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España.

4. What's with the polka-dot jersey?

As with the green points jersey, the polka-dot jersey is a race within the race, presented daily to the rider who collects the highest tally of points awarded for crossing designated climbs along the course and at the finish. It's a contest generally sought after by strong climbers who are not in the running for the overall victory. It's earned by opportunists who go on the attack, rather than to those who sit in the bunch and wait for fireworks.

5. What's a bold prediction?

Stage 6, finishing atop the short and steep climb to La Planche des Belles Filles, won't determine the winner, but it will be the first clear indication who the overall contenders are. There will be nowhere to hide on Stage 14, finishing atop the Col du Tourmalet at nearly 7,000-feet elevation for only the third time in Tour history. After the Pyrenees, the race heads to the Alps; Stage 19 has three categorized climbs and travels over the Col de l'Iseran, one of the highest paved roads in Europe, and at an altitude of 9,087 feet.

Neal Rogers has covered every major race in professional cycling, and every edition of the Tour de France since 2002.