When Chris Froome lost control of his TT bike during recon at the Critérium du Dauphiné two weeks ago, ploughing into a wall at high speed and by his own admission very nearly killing himself, the landscape for this year’s Tour de France changed in an instant. The loss of a rider who who had been hoping to secure a record-equalling fifth maillot jaune this year, who had forgone everything, including the recent Giro d’Italia, in his bid for history, was a bombshell which hit the sport hard.
The immediate reaction to the loss of two of cycling’s biggest grand tour beasts was that it would make Geraint Thomas’s task in trying to defend the crown he won last summer that bit easier. The bookies certainly thought so – and still think so – installing the Welsh rider as favourite for the race which begins in Brussels on Saturday.
The truth, though, is that it may ironically have made his task more difficult.
The announcement by Team Ineos on Friday that their young Colombian, Egan Bernal, is to enjoy co-leader status with Thomas – rather than a “Plan B” role – has created a stir.
Thomas had been due to share leadership duties with Froome. And while Froome would undoubtedly have started the favourite of the two, Thomas would have been able to draw on the confidence gained from beating his friend and team mate last year, and from the fact that, at 34, history suggests Froome would have struggled to produce the sort of efforts he did a few years ago.
Bernal presents a completely different problem. The 22-year-old has only ever ridden one grand tour (last year’s Tour, when he pulled for his leaders like a turbo-charged Ferrari day after day and still finished 15th). He therefore lacks experience – but that also makes him very unpredictable.
And when you look at the parcours for this year’s race, it is easy to see why so many are tipping him for victory. There are no cobbles and only 27 kilometres of individual time trialling – two of Thomas’s big strengths. Instead, the race is notable for having five summit finishes and four passes at an altitude of more than 2,000 metres. It is a route for the climbers, particularly high-altitude climbers.
Add to that the fact that two things have happened since Froome’s accident which may have tilted the scales in Bernal’s favour. First, Thomas’s crash at the Tour of Switzerland last week, which forced him out of the race. While the Welshman insists that he feels fine physically, at the very least he missed out on the chance to clock up some valuable mountain racing (in a season in which he has hardly raced) and compare his form directly to that of his rivals.
Second, Bernal – who had been supporting Thomas – went on to win the Tour of Switzerland race in swashbuckling fashion. The confidence gained from doing so cannot be underestimated.
The dynamic between the two of them is going to be fascinating to observe on the roads of France next month. If Thomas’s legs are good, if he rides himself into form, he is probably the slight favourite, having proven already that he has the experience and the mental strength to close it out.
But his form is unknown – and Bernal is coming up hard on the rails.
“I was 24 years old [when he won his first Tour title] and Bernal is now 22,” observed Alberto Contador this week. “But when you go from amateur to professional and you know your skills, your watts, there are more ways to know your limits, so the adaptation is shortened. He is young but has a solid base, and is a clear favourite.”
There are, of course, other riders whose hopes of victory have been exponentailly boosted by the absences of Froome and Dumoulin. Could this be the year the French end their long drought, which now stretches back 34 years to the last of Bernard Hinault’s titles in 1985? “Now or Never” screamed a headline in daily sports paper L’Equipe last week above a picture of Romain Bardet (AG2R) and Thibaut Pinot (FDJ).
Critérium du Dauphiné winner Jakob Fuglsang is another dark horse, although at 34, and with a fairly average grand tour record, it would take something extraordinary for the Dane to do it.
Adam Yates is a better age. At 26, he has plenty of experience, including that fourth-place finish three years ago when he took the white jersey for best young rider. With Mitchelton-Scott also sending his twin brother Simon, the Australian team look like being one of very few who can ask questions of Ineos. They have cards to play and proved that they learnt the lessons from Simon’s collapse at last year’s Giro, pulling off a consummate win for the same rider at the Vuelta a Espana.
Away from the yellow jersey, Mark Cavendish – assuming he is named in Dimension Data’s team – is still chasing Eddy Merckx’s all-time record of 34 stage wins. He remains four short. After successive seasons wiped out by illness, it is difficult to see where Cavendish’s next win is coming from. But class is permanent. And if he pulls one off, the confidence could come surging back. What a story that would be.
And then there is La Course, the women’s race which remains a lightning rod for controversy, with Tour owners ASO obstinately refusing to expand it into a longer ‘grand tour’.
This year’s La Course remains a one-day offering. Following the rolling route of the men’s time trial around Pau, it looks to be one for the puncheurs. Lizzie Deignan, fresh from victory at this month’s OVO Energy Women’s Tour, will have her work cut out beating Dutch pair Anna van der Breggen and Annemiek van Vleuten, who laid on a classic last year.
It is, as ever, the battle for the maillot jaune, though – which this year celebrates its 100th anniversary – which will hog the headlines. Can Thomas pull off a second win? One suspects he will need to keep his enemies close, and his co-leader even closer.