These words, spoken aloud or whispered, are running through every rider’s mind this year. No Froome, no Dumoulin, and a big question mark over the reigning champion’s form, the Tour de France crown is up for grabs as never before.
The Ineos pair, Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas, to whom the eponymous dilemma doesn’t apply, top the list of Tour de France favourites. When the cycling world found out about our local boy’s training crash and the broken collarbone just before this year’s Giro, the overwhelming reaction was disappointment. Ironically, in hindsight that may turn out to be a blessing in disguise. The Colombian wonderkid had enjoyed a very successful season to that point, having won Paris-Nice and the third position in the Volta a Catalunya. After a speedy recovery he comfortably won the Tour de Suisse showing again his credentials as a leader.
Nevertheless, alongside his obvious lack of GT experience, he is worryingly prone to falls. Since signing with Sky he’s hit the deck no less than 5 times, quite seriously in most cases. Is that due to him being carefree, Latin bravado or bad positioning in the peloton? And then he shares the captaincy with Thomas. Having played catch-up all this season after extended celebrations last year the Welshman had a very badly-timed and unfortunate fall during the crucial preparation race in Switzerland last month. He played down the importance of it but nevertheless, it’s not the best state to take on one of the hardest sporting events.
Writing from Colombian soil, Nairo is a special case. The diminutive climber has the race terrain almost tailor-made to his advantage. Having changed his personal coach, his entire season has been focused on this race and every race was just another preparation step. With his nemesis Froome out of the way, injured after a heavy crash last month, might it be Nairo’s year? My heart wants me to believe the Colombian has been keeping a low profile all this season for a reason. Namely, to attack decisively when the danger is undetected. My head says this will be a disappointing end of his career in Movistar at the end of the season. And some people even fancy Nairo’s Movistar teammate Mikel Landa for the win.
The Yates twins are both ones to watch, especially Adam who has enjoyed a steady progress as a GC threat in one-week races. But we can’t cross out Simon either, although he stated he will be there for his brother having already gone deep in the Giro d’Italia. Simon is the current Vuelta a España champion.
Jakob Fugslang must be the number one favourite based on his form so far this year. He’s won left and right and looks to be in the form of his life but in a long career the Dane has never finished top five in a GT. Of course, the same was said about Thomas before last year’s Tour.
The Frenchmen Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet will have the eyes of their nation fixed on them, hoping to break the 30-year-old drought of French winners of their most prestigious race. If Richie Porte could turn the clock back to a year or two ago and get that form he would be a clear favourite. But, who knows – no pressure, nobody expecting anything from him might actually work in his favor. If he’s within striking distance coming into the third week I fancy his chances, at least for top three.
The list of dark horses of this year’s Tour de France continues with Rigoberto Urán. The Antioqueño is very pleased with his team at Education First, possibly one of the strongest teams this year. However, like Nairo, Rigo has been playing hide and seek, so his form is unclear. Steven Kruijswijk, Emanuel Buchmann and Daniel Martin also wouldn’t surprise me if they stand on the podium in Paris, three weeks from now.
As for sprinters the main shootout should be between Dylan Groenewegen, Elia Viviani and Caleb Ewan. There is no Colombian card for the mass sprints this year. Fernando Gaviria, two-time stage winner last year, is missing out due to a knee injury.
After a nervous stage one the team time trial on Sunday looks important. GC contenders might lose significant seconds if their domestiques aren’t on their best day.
After tricky stages three and five we have a crucial stage six. Four first-category climbs, culminating in a near-20% ramp just before the finish line in La Planche des Belles will definitely sort the wheat from the chaff. The list of favourites will surely be much shorter after that day.
After tricky stages eight and nine, the individual time trial in stage 13 looms in importance. With the time differences on mountain stages getting smaller, even this single time trial of the year has the potential to change the dynamics of the GC battle.
27km on lumpy terrain at the end of the second week with a Tourmalet finish the next day could prove rather tricky. After the Tourmalet on Colombia’s independence day, stage 15 offers another showdown for GC contenders, ahead of the rest day. In the final week we will cycle into thin air, high above 2000m. Mountain stages 18, 19 and 20 will no doubt decide on the eventual winner of the Tour de France 2019.
So, brace yourself for an epic battle with no clear favourite and plenty of opportunities to steal the show.