By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) - The Grand Depart of the Tour de France in England in July will be one of the toughest ever with rivals for overall victory jostling for early ascendancy from the word go, according to race director Christian Prudhomme.
The opening three stages will take place in England, starting with a 191km stretch from Leeds to Harrogate, followed by a 198km ride over the peaks between York and Sheffield before a third stage taking the peloton from Cambridge down to a central London finish.
In 2007, the last time the world's most famous cycle race crossed the English Channel, there was a ceremonial-like 7.9km prologue in London before a first proper stage to Canterbury.
This year, by the time the Tour circus reaches French soil, riders will have already clocked up 550km and the leaderboard may already be taking shape with 2013 winner Chris Froome and Spain's Alberto Contador likely to be in the mix.
"We wanted a balance between the flatter stages, stages one and three, and a very different stage from York to Sheffield," Prudhomme told Reuters in an interview opposite the Tower of London, one of the iconic landmarks which will form the backdrop to the 159km third stage.
"Each will be a really hilly stage and it's going to one of the most difficult starts to the Tour ever, at least since the start in the Pyrenees in the 1970s.
"It will be really tough and I hope and I think that we will see the overall contenders for the overall classification from the very start of the Tour."
Cycling has undergone something of a revolution in Britain with Tour victories for Bradley Wiggins in 2012 and Chris Froome last year, not to mention the 2012 Olympics, cranking up interest to unprecedented levels.
For most Britons, the Tour de France once barely registered on the sporting Richter Scale despite its enormous appeal across Europe, but Prudhomme is expecting "humongous" levels of interest this year when it starts on July 5.
"In 2007 in London it was huge, it was unforgettable, it was massive, but we didn't think about coming back only seven years after," the 53-year-old Prudhomme, director since 2007, said.
"But since then we've had the first British winner with Bradley Wiggins and the Olympics.
"It's perhaps going to be the most popular Grand Depart in the history of the Tour and from Cambridge to London it's going to be humongous."
"In 2007, we thought maybe 10 years until it comes back to Britain but there really is such a passion."
Gone is the doping-induced cynicism that once undermined the Tour's appeal in Britain, according to Prudhomme -- a leading figure in cleaning up the sport's blue riband event.
"I don't see cynicism in the eyes any more," he said. "Obviously there is a past, it is what it is, but the future is bright and it's not only about professional cycling, it's about the recreational cyclists and the bikes in the cities.
"I've been so impressed with all the bikes on the streets in London," added Prudhomme, who took a spin on a specially-painted yellow London hire bike alongside the River Thames.
Prudhomme said he welcomed the chance to see Spain's Contador, winner of the 2007 race but who had his 2010 title taken away after testing positive for clenbuterol, fighting it out with the likes of Froome this year.
"Froome, Contador, (Vincenzo) Nibali are all champions who attack so that's great for the race, for the show," he said.
"There is a real balance between Froome and Contador, who wants to get his title again.
"The past is the past. (Contador) didn't win the Tour in 2011, 12 or 13 but we saw last year a very different rider to the years before. He's in very good form at the beginning of the season. In July, he'll be fighting with Froome I'm sure."
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing b y Rex Gowar)