By Martyn Herman
LEEDS England (Reuters) - The peloton will breathe a collective sigh of relief if it makes it through the first five days of this year's Tour de France unscathed, according to French hope Thibaut Pinot.
Race director Christian Prudhomme thinks the opening stage from Leeds to Harrogate through the Yorkshire Dales on Saturday will be the toughest start since the race began in the Pyrenees in the last 1970s.
With rain and wind forecast and nine categorized climbs awaiting the riders on Sunday's 201-km route from York to Sheffield, the chance of thrills and spills is high.
While that will make for great viewing for TV fans and those lining the country lanes, the riders, always twitchy in the opening days, will be particularly nervy.
The last time the Tour started in Britain, in 2007, it was a stress-free prologue in London. But this will be proper racing, says Pinot who represents the best hope of a French challenge for the general classification.
"Sunday's stage is going to be spectacular," the FDJ.fr rider told reporters in Leeds where preparations for Saturday's Grand Depart are complete. "We will need to be well positioned and vigilant.
"I did not check the weather yet but if it is raining or windy it could be a festival. I really believe one can lose the Tour in the first week."
Pinot, who was 10th overall in the 2012 Tour, winning a mountain stage, suffered last year after losing time on a descent and is hoping to make an impact this time.
With nine cobbled sections on stage five from Ypres to Arenberg Porte du Hainaut on Wednesday the dangers come thick and fast, and that is before the mountains even start.
"The objective here is to show everyone what I can do and I need to be at my best level for that," Pinot, 24, said.
"The first five days will be very complicated and important. I think three quarters of the bunch will be relieved at the end of the first week if they are still in the match."
Germany's Marcel Kittel, who won four sprint finishes in last year's Tour, also has concerns about the opening days in the picturesque Yorkshire countryside especially the proximity of the traditional stone walls.
"On the descents when you ride through the more lonely roads in the middle of nowhere they are very narrow and very small with stone walls on both sides," he said this week.
"So when a very nervous Tour de France peloton fighting for the yellow jersey passes by, there can be a very dangerous situation."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)