To qualify, riders must have been born after 1 January 1987. As such, that makes last year's winner Pierre Rolland (Europcar) ineligible: - the Frenchman turns 26 in October.
Winning the white jersey for a record-equalling three successive years prior to Rolland was Luxembourg's Andy Schleck, who shares the highest number of wins with Germany's Jan Ullrich.
The winner of the 2012 white jersey (sponsored once again by Skoda) will therefore be someone entirely new this year, which is exciting and should no doubt spark a few attacks. Let's look at the main contenders.
Rein Taaramae (Cofidis, age 25)
The Estonian is perhaps the favourite on paper because of his experience: this will be his fifth Grand Tour. Four times a national champion (three times ITT and once on the road), Taaramae abandoned his debut Tour in 2010 but was on course for a top 10 in last year's race before Rolland's exploits on the way to Alpe d'Huez in stage 19. In 2011 Taaramae was also the best young rider in Paris-Nice, plus picked up a stage in the Vuelta. Known as Vader or the Fox, Taaramae couldn't replicate his Paris-Nice form this year, although he did take a solid second place on the penultimate stage. 2012 has been tricky for the Cofidis all-rounder: glandular fever put his season on hold after Paris-Nice and then a broken elbow in the Tour of Castilla y Leon was another setback. But if Taaramae finds his form in France, he'll be the man to beat for white – as long as his issues with Cofidis don't come to the fore (the two will part ways in the winter).
Steven Kruijswijk (Rabobank, 25)
The Dutchman with the baffling surname is a former U23 national road race champion and is making his debut in the Tour de France after a solid showing in previous Grand Tours: 18th in the 2010 Giro followed by eighth in Italy last year, and 41st in the 2011 Vuelta. Besides two solid showings in the Giro, Kruijswijk impressed in last year's Tour de Suisse where he won the queen stage to net his first professional scalp. A solid climber with good all-round capabilities, Kruijswijk should feature enough in the race to ensure that everyone's able to spell his name correctly come Paris.
Wouter Poels (Vacansoleil-DCM, 24)
The Dutch youngster saw his debut Tour curtailed in stage nine after a nasty crash but he went on to finish 17th in the Vuelta, underlining his potential. Poels is a strong climber riding for an attacking team – a tantalising prospect that means he'll certainly be one to watch this July.
Tejay van Garderen (BMC, 23)
The former Rabobank and HTC-Columbia rider made his pro debut aged just 18 in the 2007 Tour of California and was snapped up by BMC in the winter as a view to being Cadel Evans's long-term successor. An American of Dutch descent, Van Garderen is a strong climber with admirable ITT abilities – meaning this Tour should suit him to a tee. His principle role will be to support Evans in the mountains – and if he succeeds there, you'd think he's be in a great position to mount a serious challenge in the white jersey competition in his second Tour (he finished 82nd in his debut in 2011, plus became the first American to wear the king of the mountains jersey after an attack in stage eight). The white jersey in this year's Paris-Nice bodes well for the 23 year old.
Edvald Boasson Hagen (Sky, 25)
Like Van Garderen, Boasson Hagen's principle role will be that of protecting the interests of his team leader: in the Norwegian's case, Bradley Wiggins. But the all-rounder should have ample opportunity to add to the two stage wins he picked up in last year's race – and provided he can limit his losses in the high mountains, he should improve on his 53rd position in last year's Tour. This will be Boasson Hagen's third Grande Boucle so he certainly has experience on his side.
Peter Sagan (Liquigas, 22)
There's little doubt that the Slovakian sensation will make a huge impact on this year's Tour – but whether it will be in the white jersey standings is another matter. Given his scintillating form this season, Sagan is virtual shoo-in for a stage win and a strong contender for the green jersey. But his all-round abilities (he has, after all, won mountain stages and ITTs as well as a flurry of sprints) means Sagan could well be in line to making a high finish in his debut Tour. His maiden Grand Tour saw Sagan take a hat-trick of wins in Spain last year, so the public can expect fireworks from one of the youngest riders in the peloton.
Gorka Izagirre (Euskaltel, 24)
The Spaniard finished 66th in his debut Tour last year and will be keen to emulate the success of his younger brother Jon, who won a stage in the Giro in May.
Rafael Valls (Vacansoleil-DCM, 25)
A breakthrough season in 2010 saw the Spaniard finish 53rd in his debut Tour and finish second in stage seven at Station des Rousses. Geox were not invited on the 2011 Tour and Valls joined Vacansoleil in the close season. A heavy crash in May's Tour of Murcia put Valls out of action for a month with two fractured ribs and a punctured lung. It remains to be seen if he's back to his best.
Cyril Gautier (Europcar, 24)
A huge team player, Gautier notched 45th and 43rd position in Paris after working selflessly for Thomas Voeckler during the previous two editions of the race. With Voeckler's form and fitness under the spotlight, Gautier may be let off the leash alongside his good friend Rolland this July.
Outsiders to consider:
Given the attacking ethos of their team, FDJ-BigMat trio Thibaut Pinot, Arthur Vichot and Anthony Roux will have ample opportunities to get into breaks and make an impression. Great things are expected of Pinot, the youngest rider in the peloton at 22, who is making his Grand Tour debut on home soil. RadioShack's Tony Gallopin will be keen to show the old men on his team that he's not simply there because of his directeur sportif father, Alain. Another Frenchman, Anthony Delaplace (Saur-Sojasun), was the Tour's youngest rider last year and will look to improve on the 135th place he gained in his debut race, which saw him break away on three occasions.