Chris Froome casts a long shadow over the Tour de France. Or he did, until three weeks ago.
The British champion has been the very embodiment of inevitability through the past half-decade, winning four Tours, shepherding Bradley Wiggins to the 2012 yellow jersey despite being the stronger rider, and only winding up off the top step of the podium when he crashed out in 2014 and cracked in 2018 because of the cascading effects of trying to outrun a possible suspension. Froome spent a year retooling and preparing for a record-tying fifth yellow jersey this summer, but it all went to shit when he crashed last month, broke a number of bones, and turned this 2019 Tour into the most open edition of the race in a decade.
So, yes, Froome did not win last year, when his teammate Geraint Thomas took yellow and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (who will also miss the 2019 Tour) finished as the runner-up. It is important to consider the context of Froome’s third-place finish, which took place only a month after Froome tired himself out winning the grueling Giro d’Italia. Thomas was then ideally prepared to take advantage of Team Sky’s deep roster of workhorses and immense structural advantages (read: having more money than everyone else to pay would-be leaders to work as domestiques), and his team happily smothered the field long enough for him to win.
Team Sky is now Team Ineos, and though they are still the most dominant stage race team in cycling, their success is not guaranteed by any stretch. Thomas will lead them into the Tour despite racing poorly all season, and even if he and Colombian wunderkind Egan Bernal seem, on paper, an unbeatable one-two punch of potential leaders, neither of them are as stoic or ruthless as peak Froome. Plus, they might not even work as well together as Froome and Thomas did last year. For the first time in nearly a decade, there is no favorite. This is the Tour for chaos, messy attacks, and strange finishes.
- Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal: The two Ineos leaders have had diametrically opposite seasons. Thomas has only started five stage races this season, finishing three and winning precisely none of them. The 33-year-old Welshman most recently crashed out of the Tour de Suisse halfway through the race, robbing him of the chance to get racing miles on his legs in the mountains. Thomas has been focused on the Tour all year, though he’s only finished in the top ten once in 13 Grand Tours. He raced a perfect Tour last year, and he’ll need to do so again this year, but his lack of form is an ominous sign.
Bernal, meanwhile, is perhaps the most on-form rider in the professional peloton. The 22-year-old Colombian is only in his second full season with Ineos, and he’s rapidly moving past elite helper status into becoming a legit contender. He was an indispensable mountain goat for Thomas and Froome last year, and this season, Bernal has started winning. He took Paris-Nice this spring, then completed his Tour prep by winning the Tour de Suisse in Thomas’s stead. There’s no questioning the Colombian’s climbing chops, but the Tour de France is not just a fitness contest—it’s a three-week grind that demands another level of psychological preparation and physical punishment. Bernal has only completed one three-week race in his career, and even if he looks like a future grand tour champ, winning the Tour this young and this early would be a significant surprise.
- Jakob Fuglsang: After a long career spent falling short in Grand Tours and populating the top-tens of every week-long stage race in Europe, the 34-year-old Fuglsang is finally in the form of his life. The Dane spent the spring dominating the hilly classics, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege and finishing on the podium of Strade Bianche, La Fleche Wallone, and Amstel Gold. Fuglsang’s carried the punchiness he showed in Belgium and the Netherlands into stage racing season, as he won last month’s Criterium du Dauphine, which is always the most important and prestigious Tour de France prep race. Astana will bring a strong team to support Fuglsang, who will try to reward them by not turning into a pumpkin at the Tour for the first time in nine tries.
- Nairo Quintana: Quintana has been gassed up as Froome’s most worthy rival for so long, it’s hard to believe he’s not even 30 yet. He gave Froome good runs in 2013, 2015, and 2016, only to focus on the Giro in 2017, then sort of crumble for no apparent reason last year. Bernal is the new Colombian climbing genius on the scene, but Quintana still has the juice to break the Ineos train. He’s shown himself to be one of the very best in the sport at going uphill in the entire sport, and a few weird Tours should not diminish his status as a top contender. After all, Quintana was still strong enough to win a mountain stage last year. He’ll also have two of the best helpers in the entire peloton in Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde to aid him, as long as neither dude goes off on their own.
- Richie Porte: The Tasmanian climber was once in Bernal’s and Thomas’s shoes, an overqualified lieutenant for Froome on Team Sky, though his efforts as a Tour de France leader have been rather snakebitten. He took fifth in 2016, only to crash out in the second week of both the 2017 and 2018 Tours. Porte doesn’t have the hottest form at the moment, though he has the talent. Whether the 34-year-old can make it to Paris in one piece is a trickier prospect.
- Adam Yates: Like Porte, Yates seems rather snakebitten. He was on his way to winning his first grand tour stage last year when he suffered one of the cruelest crashes you’ll ever see.
His twin brother Simon, who also knows something about having one awful day ruin a grand tour, will be there to support Adam in the mountains. I don’t really buy Yates as a three-week dude, but who knows! He’s fast and he’s been riding well all year.
- Some French Guys: The French have not gotten to watch one of their own win a Tour since Bernard Hinault’s reign of terror ended 34 years ago. That’s a long goddamn time, but at least there are two credible contenders who’ll take the starting line this year. Thibaut Pinot has been tabbed as the great French hope for years, and while he has a podium to his name, he hasn’t even finished a Tour de France since 2015. At least he looks strong this year.
Romain Bardet, meanwhile, has been the picture of consistency, finishing in the top ten for five straight Tours. Both dudes, Bardet especially, have the pedigree to challenge the best riders in the mountains, and the course is to their favor this year. But weak teams will hold them back in the third week, so they’ll each have to go it somewhat alone at the most critical time.
- Some Old Guys: Vincenzo Nibali is back! Lo Squalo was most recently seen losing the Giro to Richard Carapaz, and while his legs will not be anything close to fresh, I will never count out a rider as wily as Nibali. He dominated the Froome-less 2014 Tour but hasn’t had a strong time in France since 2015. Alejandro Valverde is 39 and at this point, I will basically never count him out. The dude has 17 top-ten Grand Tour finishes and he’ll get to race the Tour in the rainbow stripes of a world champion. It would be objectively hilarious and cool if Valverde won his first Tour de France as the almost-40-year-old third in command of his Movistar team, though I suppose it wouldn’t even be all that strange given how long he’s been winning bike races.
- Some Other Guys: Rigoberto Uran, Steven Kruijswijk, Enric Mas, Dan Martin, and a whole bunch of second-tier contenders are likely convinced that this is a golden opportunity to gun for the win, with Froome and Dumoulin out. Someone will certainly make a surprising bid for the podium this year, and Uran and Kruijswijk are particularly wily riders in grand tours. Good thing there isn’t any snow for Kruijswijk to crash into this year.
- Route’s good as hell this year! There aren’t any particularly egregious gimmicks this time, such as cobbles or a 65-kilometer mountain stage, and organizers seem to have realized that nobody really enjoys watching time trials. A sprint stage and a team time trial in Belgium open the race before things move to France for what seems like a typically chill opening week. However, Stage 6 features a summit finish atop the Planche des Belles Filles, which has been a crucial climb in all three Tours it’s been a part of. This year, organizers pushed the finish line a few hundred meters back from where it usually is, which means riders will have to push through a 24 percent gradient up unpaved hiking roads.
The race will then move southwest to the Pyrenees, which will be capped off this year by a classic-looking Stage 14 summit finish on top of the Col du Tourmalet. The final competitive stage of this Tour will end with a 33.4-kilometer crusher of a climb that averages 5.5 percent gradient. It’s not the spikiest uphill drag in the world, but that’s a long way to climb after 20 days of racing.
You will not want to miss Stage 3, Stage 6, Stage 14, Stage 15, Stage 18, Stage 19, or Stage 20.
The Cool Guys To Know
- Peter Sagan is back and ready to win a bunch more stages. The strongest rider of this generation will go for a record-breaking seventh green jersey this year, and the lack of straight-up flat sprint stages means he is once again the overwhelming favorite. Sagan will have Dylan Groenewegen, Elia Viviani, and Caleb Ewan to contend with in sprints, though sadly Mark Cavendish was left home this year. Those who enjoyed the little British missile’s incredible sprinting form will at least get to enjoy Ewan’s Tour debut. Like Cav, Ewan is tiny and he sprints with what looks like half his body pushed over his handlebars. He won two stages at the Giro, and hopefully he gets on the board in France.
French puncheur Julian Alaphilippe is an extremely entertaining climber, and he’ll vie for stage wins on basically every stage that isn’t a flat finish. He’s a worthwhile rival to Sagan on intermediate stages, but he’s also one of the best climbers in the world. There are four Americans at this year’s Tour, and of the bunch, time trial specialist Chad Haga and climber Tejay van Garderen seem like the best bets to win stages. Van Garderen has flirted with the podium before, and he finished second behind Bernal at the Dauphine this year, so it wouldn’t be surprising if he finds himself in a good position when the race hits the Alps.
Who’s Going To Win?
- I don’t know!