Recent editions of the Tour de France have often ended up too predictable as what was Team Sky exerted their dominance over three weeks, but 2019 could be very different.
Sure, Geraint Thomas was immediately installed as the favourite once Chris Froome was ruled out through injury but the Welshman has his own history of misfortune in this race prior to 2018 and others will be eyeing a rare opportunity.
Here PA looks at five key talking points ahead of the start in Brussels on July 6.
Froome’s crash at the Criterium du Dauphine robbed the Tour de France of the spectacle of his generation’s greatest Grand Tour rider chasing history as he sought a record-equalling fifth Tour title. But in his absence the race feels wide open. As defending champion, Thomas is the obvious favourite, not least given the stranglehold Team Sky, now Ineos, have held over the race for years now. But the Welshman, something of a surprise victor last July, is hardly a lock and several others are ready to raise their hand. Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana, Jakob Fuglsang, Vincenzo Nibali and more will not mourn the absence of Froome as the door opens up.
It has become increasingly familiar over recent years to watch the French media and fans work themselves up as July approaches. It is now 34 years since Bernard Hinault provided the last home win on the Tour, a fact that nobody can escape in the pre-race build-up as L’Equipe is emblazoned with headlines such as ‘This year or never?’ Froome’s absence will only increase hope that Romain Bardet – for he is the most likely candidate – can end that wait. For years Tour organisers have been trying to find ways of tilting the route in favour of some of the home riders, and Bardet’s AG2R La Mondiale have already spoken enthusiastically about this year’s parcours, short on time trials and heavy on high mountain passes where Bardet can hope to excel.
Bardet will not be the only one encouraged by the race route. There are only 27 kilometres of individual time trialling and a team time trial of similar distance, while the Alpine challenges of the final few days will loom large over the race. There are only five hors categorie climbs – the toughest – in the entire race but four of them come in the last three days, with both the Izoard and the Galibier to tackle on a brutal stage 18. With four passes at an altitude of more than 2,000 metres this could be a Tour for those who excel at altitude, just a couple of months after the surprise victory of Ecuadorian Richard Carapaz at the Giro d’Italia.
Sagan for green
The only year Peter Sagan has not won the green jersey since 2013 is 2017, when he was controversially disqualified on stage four following a crash with Mark Cavendish. And it seems like only another early end to his Tour could prevent Sagan from winning the points classification again. With sprint opportunities at a premium – no more than seven are expected – the competition will once again be defined by the intermediate sprints at which the three-time world champion excels. The only rider with the skillset to match him, Michael Matthews, hardly seems ready to put up a proper challenge. The Australian voiced his frustration in the final days before the Tour, having prepared to assist Tom Dumoulin in the general classification only to see the Team Sunweb leader forced to withdraw from the race through injury.
Crossroads for Cavendish
Imagine what a brilliant story it would be that, in the year when the Tour celebrates all-time great Eddy Merckx, Cavendish could equal or better the Belgian’s record of 34 stage wins. Cavendish needs four more stage wins to match Merckx, but right now it is hard to see where the next one might come from. Cavendish has not raised his arms in victory at the Tour since winning four stages in 2016, plagued by illness, injury and misfortune at almost every turn. At 34, Cavendish’s time is running out. He urgently needs a change in fortune.