Take the biggest, most anticipated and revered bike race of the season, subtract a four-time winner, the 2018 runner-up, reduce one former winner to stage hunter and add injuries to another. What does that leave? A lacklustre Tour de France?
The Tour de France, about the only race that also invades the consciousness of the general public, is just around the corner. Due to its high profile, its drama nearly always exceeds the bounds of the month of July, and the 2019 edition has had more than its fair share of theatre already. First is the elevated excitement left over from last year’s unexpected outcome, then Froome’s horrendous season-ending crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné, followed by the nasty headfirst touchdown of teammate and defending Tour-winner, Geraint Thomas. Luckily for Thomas, Team Ineos and the temperature of the Twittersphere, his withdrawal from the Tour de Suisse was no more than precautionary and he was back on his bike a few days later.
Froome had been plan A for Team Ineos, the team getting behind his quest for a fifth yellow jersey. But with Froome out, Thomas picking Swiss grit out of his wounds, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) targeting stage wins and Dumoulin (Sunweb) nursing his knee on the sofa, top favourites are looking thin on the ground. This needn’t be a bad thing; in fact, tempered only slightly by the ominous Movistar line-up, I am all for this more democratic edition of the Grande Boucle.
Here’s how I rate the general classification contenders at the Tour de France 2019…
Two former winners and five podium finishers take the start. Defending champion Geraint Thomas has the hollow luxury of being the only 2018 podium finisher heading to Brussels, but he’ll not be resting on his laurels, especially after a fairly subdued build-up, culminating in a scary high-speed crash at the Tour de Suisse.
The only other member of the yellow jersey club is 2014 winner, Vincenzo Nibali, who announced he’d be chasing stages and polka dots in France after finishing 2nd at the Giro d’Italia. Few riders on the startlist can match Nibali’s GC experience though, and if he’s feeling good, he’ll be one to keep an eye on.
Narrowly missing out on top dog status is Romain Bardet (AG2R) who finished 2nd and 3rd overall in 2016 and 2017 respectively. He’s got a country behind him and a devoted team, but one potentially fatal flaw – his time trial. Of all the GC riders competing at the Critérium du Dauphiné, Bardet fared worst in the stage 4 ITT, losing 1:52 to the winner over a 26.1km course very similar in distance and profile to the stage 13 ITT on 19 July. Compatriot Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) gets the same treatment from me, his inconsistency, especially against the clock, hardly promising.
One rider who has done some serious work on their time trialling is Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), but the British hopeful remains an enigma. 4th overall at the 2016 Tour de France remains the highlight of his Grand Tour career thus far, but he’s put in some promising stage race performances this year. Having learned all he has from his own racing, and his brother’s, I reckon he has the potential to finish on the podium.
If Adam Yates is enigmatic then how can Nairo Quintana (Movistar) be described? A friend of mine whole-heartedly believes that Quintana – who let’s not forget has won both the Giro and Vuelta – is incapable of making waves without the hand-holding of a super-domestique like Valverde. Tactical nous notwithstanding, he can certainly climb mountains and there are a lot of those at the Tour… Is he going to win? Nah.
We can’t not consider Egan Bernal, fresh from overall victory at the Tour de Suisse, though not in a vintage field (Rohan Dennis came second, 19 seconds down…). He’s due to back Thomas, but should his leader prove undercooked, then Bernal is more than capable of taking up the gauntlet. Can Bernal really be expected to win in only his second ever Grand Tour, though?
The other Tour de France warm-up event, the Critérium du Dauphiné, was won by the on-form Jakob Fuglsang of Astana Pro Team. He’s more than proven his ability in short stage races but his staying power over three weeks is still up for debate. That said, as Neal Rogers has pointed out, his experience is pretty similar to that of Geraint Thomas before last year’s race…
Only just qualifying for the ‘possibles’ are Rigoberto Urán, Richie Porte and Steven Kruijswijk. Urán’s team, EF Education First, are flying higher than they’ve been in years – since his 2nd place finish in 2017, in fact – but his 2019 has been pretty unremarkable so far. Porte (Trek-Segafredo) is determined to be considered a contender, but his best result was 5th in 2016 and riding on a new team this year, I can’t see him doing better than a low top-10 finish. As for Kruijswijk, since losing pink in that comedy crash at the 2016 Giro, he’s consistently come in the top 10 of every Grand Tour he’s finished since then. Can his strong Jumbo-Visma line-up help him onto the podium?
The “I’ll eat my hat” category
The fact that Mikel Landa is sharing leadership with the equally poker-faced Quintana might seem a threat, but I don’t expect to see either of them on the podium for anything other than the team classification.
Also in the ‘unlikely’ category, we have Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) who’ll have to freelance his way to the top, just like Enric Mas (Deceuninck). The latter has been touted “the next Contador” but he is yet to match the imperious form he showed on his way to 2nd overall at the 2018 Vuelta. He also can’t expect anything close to full support from a team that includes Elia Viviani and Julian Alaphilippe.
With Tom Dumoulin sitting this one out, Wilco Kelderman finds himself sharing Sunweb’s recently vacated basket with Michael Matthews, 2017 points classification winner. Both of them have been training specifically to help Dumoulin and they don’t have a great deal of time to adjust, but a top-10 finish ought to be in Kelderman’s reach.
The domestiques who may succeed fallen leaders include Wout Poels (Ineos), David Gaudu (Groupama-FDJ), George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma), Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida) and, obviously, Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), all of whom have had good results this year. However, the peloton is so jam-packed with favourites, of varying degrees of seriousness, that I can’t see any of this lot getting much further than a decent stage result.
Finally, who do I think will wear yellow in Paris? Jakob Fuglsang.
Who do I want to win? Adam Yates.
Bernal will win the youth classification by a country mile; Nibali will wear polka dots on the Champs-Élysées; Peter Sagan will fight off Wout van Aert to win a seventh green jersey and Movistar will take home the team classification…again.
Words by Emma Nicholson