Tour de France - Geraint Thomas versus Egan Bernal at start of new era for Tour
Huge names in the cycling world, each with tremendous Tour de France pedigree – but each man absent from the 106th staging of cycling’s greatest event.
Whether it be the non-selection of Cavendish and Degenkolb by their respective teams, or the injuries to general classification heavyweights Froome and Dumoulin, the Tour de France begins in Brussels today with a nod to absent friends.
Indeed, the 194.5km opening stage around the Belgian capital feels like the start of a new era in the race’s grand history.
Not least in the absence of Cavendish, the pre-eminent sprinter of the last decade, and Froome, winner of four of the last six editions, but also by the fact that Team Sky arrive at the race now sporting the name and colours of Team Ineos.
Geraint Thomas still has star power, the Welshman being a popular if surprise winner of the 2018 race.
But he sets off in defence of his title without the full backing of Team Ineos, who are hedging their bets by making him joint leader with their Colombian ‘wunderkind’ Egan Bernal.
If Thomas is the slight favourite among bookmakers, that owes much to past exploits.
For Bernal is very much the future of the powerful British squad and in what is set to be a generational shift of the Tour de France, he could establish himself as the present.
“Hopefully one of us wins and it’s really uneventful,” said Thomas yesterday, with a laugh.
“I don’t think I’ve got anything to prove. Some people have said about maybe being a one-hit wonder, but it’s a pretty good hit to have.”
At 22 and going into only his second Grand Tour after finishing 15th in last year’s Tour, Bernal is short on experience, but Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford has no doubts over his credentials.
“I think you have a physical age and a mental age, but when you’re ready, you’re ready,” said Brailsford. “He’s ready.”
For his own part, Bernal said the strength of Team Ineos gives him confidence.
“I think that I’m young to be a GC rider, but I have a team with a lot of experience,” he said. “With a team like this, maybe it’s a little bit easier. “I follow them and they put me in a good position.”
Barring Ineos putting Thomas or Bernal in yellow and safely negotiating a passage for him into Paris – as they have done with three different riders since Sir Bradley Wiggins’s breakthrough victory in 2012 – then Froome’s absence make this one of the most open Tours for years.
Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida), Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) have been regular challengers over the years and again lead their respective teams in the race for the maillet jaune.
But it would be apt if the winner were to come from the emerging crop of general classification combatants.
Lancashire twins Simon and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) together with Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) have enjoyed varying degrees of success in the three grand tours – Simon Yates winning last year’s Vuelta a Espana – and could still be prominent when the race reaches the Alps.
France has a trio of riders all seeking to end the host nation’s 34-year wait for a winner.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) and Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) should relish a route that is short on time-trials but heavy on long, tough climbs.
This year’s race features only five climbs ranked as hors categorie – the hardest – but four of them are spread across the penultimate three stages, with two on stage 18, the Galibier and the Izoard. If Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) is still in contention by that time, he could well be the man to deliver for France, given he won two mountain stages last year.
In the race for green, three-time world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is the man to beat, the Slovakian not necessarily a serial winner of stages but so often in the top three, notching points at every opportunity.
Andre Griepel is 36 and on a new team but can never be discounted, while Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) is one to watch. The Dutchman won back-to-back stages last year and his rise up the sprinting ranks has been fascinating since his breakthrough victory on the 2016 Tour de Yorkshire into Settle.
Cavendish, in truth, has not been the Cavendish of old for the last two years, primarily given his battles with the Epstein-Barr Virus, while his great rival from the days when the Tour was starting in Yorkshire – Marcel Kittel – is also absent after taking time off the bike earlier this summer.
The most open Tour de France for many a year awaits.