Tour de France: The contenders, the stages and the jerseys all explained

The 2018 Tour de France begins Saturday and goes for three weeks and will cover about 2,100 miles. A total of 176 riders in 22 teams of eight will compete on a course that covers a rough circuit of the country. Twenty-one stages, 26 tough climbs across six mountain ranges, three mountaintop finishes and two time trials will test the limits of the riders' endurance and skill.

Here is a quick look at what the peloton can expect in the 105th edition of cycling's greatest race:

The Contenders

Chris Froome

Froome is the undisputed favorite to triumph for a record-tying fifth time after being cleared of doping by the International Cycling Union on Monday. The Kenyan-born British rider is aiming to join the elite group of Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain as the only cyclists who have won cycling's biggest race five times. Froome enters the three-week trek on the best winning run of his career. After his dominant performance to win a fourth Tour last summer, Froome won both the Spanish Vuelta in September and Giro d'Italia in May. That made him only the third rider to hold all three Grand Tour titles at the same time and the first to achieve the feat since the Vuelta was moved to the end of the season in 1995.

Strengths: Confidence and experience of a proven champion, skills for the high mountains and time trials, and strong support from Team Sky.

Questions: How is Froome's stamina holding up after his crash-marred Giro victory and the doping case, which led to months of debate?

Nairo Quintana

A winner of the Vuelta and the Giro, Quintana has planned his season around winning the elusive Tour. The Colombian scaled back his competition schedule this year and did not compete in the Giro to give him fresher legs at the Tour after he finished a disappointing 12th last year, his worst showing in his five entries in the race. Quintana twice finished runner-up behind Froome in 2013 and 2015. He is aiming to become just the eighth rider ever to win all three Grand Tours.

Strengths: An elite climber, on-par with Froome when at his best, he will be backed by a very strong Movistar team that includes Mikel Landa and veteran Alejandro Valverde.

Questions: Can he build a big enough lead before the individual time trial in the penultimate stage, given his weakness in races against the clock compared to Froome and other rivals? Or if he falters early, will Movistar shift its hopes to Landa or Valverde?

Tom Dumoulin

Dumoulin won the 2016 Giro and finished second behind Froome in the Italian race this year. The Dutch rider won two stages of the 2016 Tour and came agonizingly close to winning the Vuelta in 2015.

Strengths: A powerful rider who excels in time trials as well as rugged terrain.

Questions: Although he has improved in the mountains, will he be able to challenge Froome and the other world-class climbers when it matters? Will he get enough help from Team Sunweb to hang with powerhouses Sky and Movistar?

Vincenzo Nibali

The only man to win the Tour besides Froome over the past five years, Nibali is also the only other former champion to ride this year. He joins Froome in that exclusive group of riders who have won the Tour, Vuelta and Giro in their careers. The Italian won the Milan-San Remo classic in March but skipped the Giro to prepare for what could be his last realistic opportunity to repeat his 2014 Tour win.

Strengths: A champion's pedigree on every kind of terrain, proven climbing credentials and excellent downhill skills.

Questions: Does he still have the strength to topple Froome? Can his Bahrain-Merida team give him the support he will surely need?

Romain Bardet

France's hopes to end a 33-year-long wait for a homegrown Tour champion rest on Bardet. He has finished on the podium for the past two Tours and has won stages in the race in each of the past three editions.

Strengths: Climbing skills and attacking attitude.

Questions: Can he improve in the individual time trial after struggling last year? And how well will Bardet and his AG2R La Mondiale team hold up on the first team time trial at the Tour after a three-year absence?

Stages to watch

  • Starting with a splash: Two flat stages should provide a fast-paced start as sprinters battle it out for a chance to wear the race leader's iconic yellow jersey -- a highlight in any rider's career. Starting on the island of Noirmoutier-en-l'Ile, Stage 1 is a 201-kilometer introduction with gentle gradients to welcome 22 teams of eight riders to the race, and Stage 2 provides another early opportunity to shine. This is great for spectators as riders will hold nothing back as they fight for the lead before one of the favorites can take over, increasing the likelihood of crashes that can damage top contenders' chances.

  • The trials of time: To spice up the start even more, carrots of 3, 2 and 1 bonus seconds will be offered to the first three riders to reach a specific kilometer determined in advance over the first nine stages. More conventional time bonuses of 10, 6 and 4 seconds will be taken off the overall times of the top three in each normal stage of the race (excluding time trials). All of the bonuses may result in more changes in race leadership. Stage 3 is a 35.5-kilometer team time trial in Cholet that could see riders on weaker teams drop behind in the overall standings. The only individual time trial comes in the penultimate stage and should settle the overall places before the riders point their bikes toward the Champs-Elysees.

  • Mountain challenge: All three legs in the Alps feature daunting climbs and frightening descents, culminating in the awe-inspiring ascent up the 21 bends that lead to the famed 1,838-meter high Alpe d'Huez finish on July 19. Almost half of the mountain climbs will be in the Alps (12), with four in the Massif central and 10 in the Pyrenees, where the Tour will pass through Spain for a brief 15 kilometers. Otherwise, this year's Tour is exclusively French.

  • Cobblestones, climbs and time trials: While the team time trial in Stage 3 will shake up the overall classification, the first big individual test should come in Stage 9 in a leg that follows the cobblestoned route of the annual Paris-Roubaix classic. Held on the same day as the World Cup soccer final on July 15, the road to Roubaix takes riders over 15 treacherous cobblestone sections: the highest number since the 1980 Tour, covering nearly 22 kilometers (13.7 miles) altogether. Then the clockwise route heads down to the Alps and the legendary climb up Alpe d'Huez and more ascents in the Pyrenees before a possibly decisive individual time trial in the penultimate stage in the Basque Country. The Tour concludes July 29 with the usual parade along the Champs-Elysees in Paris.

  • The 'Queen Stage': This year's so-called queen stage -- the stage that stands out for its difficulty and race drama -- appears to be the 200.5-kilometer mountain leg from Lourdes to Laruns in the Pyrenees on July 27. It will provide a "last opportunity for riders to change the general classification," according to race director Christian Prudhomme. The route takes in the 1,490-meter Col d'Aspin, 2,115-meter Col du Tourmalet and 1,709-meter Col d'Aubisque, with a steep descent to Laruns providing a challenging finish for riders still competing for the yellow jersey.

The jerseys

Four other cyclists will also wear different-colored jerseys each day, which will differ from those worn by their teammates:

  • The yellow jersey represents the race leader.

  • The green jersey represents the race's best sprinter.

  • The polka dot jersey designates the race's finest climber.

  • The white jersey designates the highest-ranked rider in the overall competition age 25 or younger.

'Grand' numbers

With one more Tour victory, Chris Froome will match the record of five shared by Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Hinault and Miguel Indurain. Lance Armstrong won seven Tour titles before he was stripped of them all for doping. Froome can also match Merckx's record by winning his fourth straight Grand Tour, having followed last year's Tour title with victories in the Vuelta and the Giro d'Italia. Furthermore, Froome can become the first rider since the late Marco Pantani in 1998 to achieve the Giro-Tour double in the same season.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.