Another pavement melting summer in France, and another installment of the most gruelling 3-week race in professional sport. The 2019 Tour de France kicks off this weekend with 176 riders set to cover almost 3,500kms of terrain in 23 days, with what is estimated to be temperatures in excess of 35 degrees. Ironically the race does not start in France this year, with the Tour Grand Depart taking place in Brussels, Belgium, where it will pay homage to arguably the great cyclist of all time, Eddy Merckx. After two days taking on roads more associated with the spring classics, the riders and their entourage will make their first foray into France during the 214km stage 3 from Binche to Epernay. Over the next 18 stages they will face brutal mountains, pan flat stretches of highway, severe crosswinds and the inevitable crashes, before they reach their prized destination of the Champs Elysees on the 28th of the month.
This year’s race for the yellow jersey provides a fascinating clash between the established grand tour riders and the new guard, as relative stalwarts of Geraint Thomas, Jakob Fuglsang, Richie Porte, Thibaut Pinot , Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet are joined by some of the brightest young stars in the peloton. The most talked about of these is 22-year-old Colombian Egan Bernal, who in what will be only his 2nd ever grand tour comes into the Tour de France 2019 as the bookmakers favourite. Last year he may have only finished in 15th place, however that wasn’t a fair reflection of the strength he showed in the mountains, where he towed both Chris Froome and eventual 2018 champ Geraint Thomas for kilometre after kilometre up numerous tough ascents. In 2019 he has been on another level with wins in Paris-Nice and the recent Tour de Suisse, and with the injured Chris Froome absent this July, it may well be the time for the prodigious Bernal to etch his name into the record books.
The Colombian isn’t the only talented youngster in the line-up for this year’s Grand Boucle. Groupama–FDJ’s French rider David Gaudu has also been touted for great things in the sport and you can expect to see him offering strong support for his team leader Pinot once the road starts pointing upwards. 24-year-old Spaniard Enric Mas will also line up this year for his Tour de France debut, and he shouldn’t be underestimated after his superb podium finish in last season’s Vuelta a Espana. With other great climbers in Jack Haig, Marc Soler, Guilio Ciccone and to a lesser extent Tiesj Benoot and Matej Mohoric all 25 and younger, the future of stage racing looks in good hands.
The route for the 2019 race is one for the climbers given that there is only a limited amount of TT kilometres in this year’s race. Apart from a 27.6km flat TTT on stage 2 and an individual test of 27.2km on stage 13, the main action in the 2019 event will likely come from the seven mountains stages, of which five conclude in mountain-top finishes. As early as stage 6 the peloton will have their first taste of rarefied air on the tree-lined climb of La Planche des Belles Filles, however it is in the final 8 days where the race will be properly won and lost. Stage 14 featuring the superb Tourmalet which averages out at 7.5% will split the men from the boys, while just a day later on the 185km route from Foix to Prat d’Albis the riders will have to tackle three separate cat 1 climbs. It doesn’t stop there though as stage 18 see’s the familiar but brutal climbs of the Col d’Izoard and the Col du Galibier, while stage 20 has the peloton reaching as high as 2363m above sea level for the intimidating Val Thorens. If you don’t have the legs this year, then there will be no hiding place.
So, the contenders for the overall win? Well Egan Bernal has shown with his form this season that he is the man to beat coming into the race, however there must be doubt over his ability to lead a team over a 3 week stage race. That however will be offset by the fact Team INEOS (formally Team Sky) also come into the race with last year’s champion Geraint Thomas. The Welshman has had a quiet season to date, and did pull out of the recent Tour de Suisse after crashing, but the dominant way he won this race last season suggests that if he is on form again this time around, he will take a lot of beating. As a duo they are backed up by a team of super-domestiques, and if the other teams want to pressure the two INEOS boys in the mountains, it will be crucial to try and whittle down the INEOS train before they reach the final climbs. In term of overall team strength there is perhaps only five 8-man teams who are comparable. Astana, Movistar and EF Education First and then to a lesser extent Groupama–FJD and Trek–Segafredo. Astana lead with Jakob Fuglsang, and the plucky Dane comes into the race in the form of his life. The big question though is whether he will be able to maintain his form and challenge for the full three weeks, given that he has secured just one top 10 Grand Tour finish in 12 attempts.
Movistar have the usual spearhead of Quintana, Valverde and Landa, and while all three have class in the mountains, there are also question marks about all three. Thibaut Pinot of Groupama–FDJ (along with AG2R’s Romain Bardet) is France’s big hope of a first yellow jersey since Bernard Hinault in 1985, and with 5 top 10 finishes in 11 Grand Tour’s he certainly has the class. The problem for Pinot however is his accident-prone nature (5 DNF’s in those 11 GT’s) and also that he usually underperforms in severely hot weather. Trek–Segafredo have a rider in Richie Porte who has started favourite for this race in recent times, and if this race was taking place in January in Australia, he would likely be trading favourite yet again this time around. Unfortunately for Porte the 3 weeks are not in his Australian backyard, but around the Pyrenees and Alps of France, and given that he has failed to record a podium finish in 8 attempts, and has crashed heavily in the past 2 years, he looks a risky prospect this time around.
Which leaves EF Education First and their classy team of climbers and hard men. They will be led by Colombian Rigoberto Uran who although hasn’t won a Grand Tour in 16 attempts, does have three 2nd place finishes to his
name, most recently in the 2017 edition of this great race. He is a very good stage racer with good climbing abilities combined with a solid TT and very good tactical awareness. He comes into the race with his form looking to be peaking at the right time and importantly can rely on a strong team of climbing domestiques over the three weeks. In Michael Woods, Tejay Van Garderen, Tanel Kangert and Simon Clarke, he has 4 aides who will be there to give him any assistance required deep into a stage. He also has three very strong riders in Langeveld, Scully and Tour Of Flanders winner Bettiol for the flatter roads. The team can produce a very good Team Time Trial on stage 2 which should see Uran positioned nicely leading into stage 6’s ride up Belle Filles. In an open edition of the race, he looks a fair ew price at around 25/1.
*All odds taken from Bet365 on 4/7
Yellow Jersey Winner
Egan Bernal 2/1 Geraint Thomas 11/4 Jakob Fuglsang 11/2
Adam Yates 11/1 Nairo Quintana 18/1 Rigoberto Uran 25/1
Green Jersey Points Winner
Peter Sagan 4/9 Dylan Groenewegen 9/2 Elia Viviani 11/2 Michael Matthews 8/1
Young Rider Classification
Egan Bernal 1/3 Enric Mas 11/4 David Gaudu 16/1 Tiesj Benoot 16/1
King of the Mountains
Julian Alaphillipe 6/4 Warren Barguil 5/1 Vincenzo Nibali 12/1 Giulio Ciccone 16/1