Geraint Thomas is heading into the 2019 Tour de France as the defending champion and odds-on favorite to win the race. Chris Froome, Thomas’ Ineos teammate and biggest challenger for victory, will miss the race due to severe injuries sustained at a crash during the Critérium du Dauphiné. With his biggest competition missing the race and the world’s strongest team at his disposal, Thomas should be feeling comfortable and confident in a repeat victory and the fans should be preparing for yet another mind-numbing processions.
Fortunately for us, this couldn’t be further from the truth. The path to victory in the 2019 Tour cracking wide open and the race is shaping up to be the most wide-open edition in years. However, the one constant is that Thomas’ biggest challenge is still coming from inside his own team, only now it’s via the young Colombian sensation Egan Bernal.
Thomas crashed out of the Tour de Suisse on the fourth stage, which further complicated the Ineos team hierarchy following Froome’s accident. Things got even more interesting when Bernal went on to win Suisse in dominant fashion. The youngster never appeared under pressure, put time into Rohan Dennis in the mountains and held off the World Time Trial Champion in the race’s lone effort against the clock.
While Thomas will reportedly recover fast enough to start the Tour, his form has yet to click this year and his legs will certainly miss the quality racing the remaining days of Suisse will provide. He is stuck in reverse while the competition is speeding off the start line.
For reference, the last rider to win the Tour de France (defined as crossing the line as the winner in Paris) without finishing either the Dauphine or Tour de Suisse was Marco Pantani in 1998. Of course, Pantani completed the historic double that season and was coming off a Giro d’Italia win. The last rider to win the Tour de France without previously completing the Dauphine, Suisse, or the Giro d’Italia was Miguel Indurain in 1991. It is worth noting that Indurian had already completed the Vuelta a Espana, which in those years took place in early Spring. This means Thomas is heading into the Tour with fewer quality race days in his legs than any past winner in the modern era.
Bernal has potentially been overhyped as the ‘next big thing’ by the cycling media, but his display of combined climbing/TT strength at Suisse should send fear through the competition. Thomas could very well see his bid for a back-to-back thwarted by a teammate, but being outranked by an unproven rider in his early 20s will sting a lot more than by a veteran champion like Froome.
It is important to remember there is a danger of being too sharp, too early, heading into a Grand Tour (see: Primoz Roglic/Giro 2019), but Bernal has looked like the world’s best climber without hitting his best form. Going into a Tour that will be won nearly exclusively on the climbs and team time trial, he has to feel incredibly confident about his chances. Bernal never appeared under pressure during his winning ride at Suisse and was able to ride away from the competition whenever he needed to while looking like he had a few gears in reserve. Most importantly, he limited his losses in the stage 8 time trial to a second per kilometer to Dennis.
Thomas is putting on a brave face but he would be an extreme historical outliner if he went on to win the Tour de France after DNF-ing Suisse. Not to mention the time missed training this week as he recovers from his fall and the difficulty of coming back from direct impacts to the head (according to team doctors, Thomas’ head took the brunt of the crash).
Prior to his crash at the Dauphine, betting markets and Ineos boss Dave Brailsford considered Froome the favorites for a fifth career Tour win in July, so his absence was supposed to be the perfect scenario for the defending champion. With Froome on the sidelines, Thomas was losing a rival and gaining and domestique. Now, with his diminished capacity due to the untimely rest period, the door has been left wide-open for Bernal.
Bernal was originally slated to lead Ineos at the Giro, but an unfortunate (a little too unfortunate if you ask me) collarbone fracture meant he had to shift priorities to the Tour. This set up a massively interesting three-leader scenario for Ineos that promised inter-team tensions that would slowly simmer throughout the three weeks. However, Ineos’ three-leader selection looks like incredible foresight now that they’ve had their four-time winner crash out, their defending champion suffer a devastating setback, and still come out the other side with a viable threat for overall victory in Bernal.
This displays seriously impressive team depth but means there is very little room for error for even the most accomplished riders. Twelve months after taking the win of his career, Thomas finds himself in an eerily similar position; heading to the Tour warding a threat from within his own team.