Alexander Kristoff Is Underrated Because He Doesn’t Fit an Archetype

This past weekend saw Alexander Kristoff break a long winning drought by taking victory at a brutal edition of Gent-Wevelgem. The win was a much-needed return to the top step of the podium in the spring classics for one of the most underrated riders in the peloton, who, with his recent show of form, should be considered a favorite for this Sunday’s Tour of Flanders, and next Sunday’s Paris Roubaix. Since Gent-Wevelgem moved to its current schedule slot in 2011, three riders have won both Gent and Paris-Roubaix (Sagan-2018, Avermaet-2017, Boonen-2012) and one rider has won Gent before winning Flanders the following weekend (Boonen-2012).

Despite the fact that Gent-Wevelgem has produced the Paris-Roubaix winner three out of the past seven years, Kristoff will likely struggle to match the pre-race of riders like Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet and John Degenkolb. He is rarely mentioned as a true star, but he currently holds as many monument titles as Peter Sagan and Team Sky, while having more than a superstar like Van Avermaet.

The big Norweigan raised eyebrows in 2013 when he finished in the top 10 at three separate monuments (Tour of Flanders, Milan San Remo, and Paris Roubaix). The following season, he won Milan San Remo, along with two Tour de France stages, and then added a second monument victory in 2015 with a win at the Tour of Flanders. While he hasn’t been able to capture quite the same success in the years since, he won the European Road Race Championships in 2017 and was a tire width away from being World Champion later that year.

While having a proven track record as a monument winner, Kristoff is consistently written off as washed up despite being two years younger than Van Avermaet, who the media seems to count as a favorite for what seems like every race he starts. Van Avermaet is showered with adoring coverage even as he struggles to convert victories at the biggest races.

Kristoff’s struggle to stay relevant in the past few seasons (even while he racked up an impressive 25 wins from 2016 to 2018) likely stems from the fact that he was somewhat unfairly labeled a “sprinter” following his first two Tour de France stages wins in 2014, along with the unfortunate narrative that is he is overweight.

With an ability to hit peaks of over 1500 watts at the end of races, Kristoff can wind up to the speeds necessary to win in the most competitive bunch finishes, but he lacks the fast-twitch abilities of pure sprinters. This means he isn’t able to consistently nab first week Grand Tour stages wins. But what he lacks in quickness he makes up for in raw, overwhelming power and an ability to crank out watts for hours on end while still producing a race-winning sprint. We shouldn’t consider top 10s in an easy-stage bunch sprints a disappointment, we should be impressed that such a diesel power is able to mix it up with the quickest riders on the planet.

For example, according to Velon, Kristoff averaged a stunning 345 watts for the entire 5.5 hours of Gent-Wevelgem, and still managed to hit 1432 watts to win the reduced bunch sprint.D3AFDPPXgAAxVqL

Producing this amount of power for over five hours is incredibly impressive, and should make him one of the top favorites for both Flanders and Roubaix.

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It would be a mistake to assume Kristoff is simply a pair of strong legs that smashes his way to wins. His victory on Sunday at Gent was more than just the product of superior power. Kristoff made a canny solo move off the front 8 kilometers before the final passage of the Kemmelberg climb. While this move caused him to burn more energy, it allowed him to ride the final climb at his own pace and get over the top with the lead group. This meant that he was able to sit on and recover for a few kilometers while the other sprinters like Viviani and Degenkolb were forced to chase furiously to catch back on.

While he possesses world-class power and tactical nous, Kristoff may not be considered a world-class classics contender due to the fact that his natural body shape can make him appear out of shape. Cycling has an obsession with rider weight, even to the point of being detrimental to performance. Hugh Carthy on EF often shows up to races looking unhealthily skinny and has struggled mightily with results in the past few seasons. However, his weight is rarely, if ever, publically mentioned as a determining factor in this lack of performance. To many in professional cycling, the math is simple, skinny equals fast. Therefore, a rider can never be criticized for shedding a few too many pounds.

If skinny equals fast, then fat (or slightly bigger) must equal slow. Even if the objective of cycling is to cross the finish before your competitors, this reality will often become decoupled from rider weight. Kristoff has delivered big wins while being called fat by his own team, but few stop to consider the possibility that he is winning because of his bigger physique. The Cobbled Spring Classics, Kristoff’s best races, do not feature any long, sustained climbs, where a lighter rider can gain an advantage, and power-to-weight ratio matters little when hammering over the cobbled flat roads and short, explosive climbs of Northern Europe. If Kristoff worked to dropped weight like his former Katusha team suggested, it is likely he would lose his ability to produce 345 watts for over five hours.

Despite the stigma surrounding bigger, stronger physiques, Kristoff should line up at whatever weight he feels allows him to ride the fastest, and in turn, gives him the greatest chance of victory.

With the big fan looking back on form, the rest of the peloton should consider themselves warned and avoid taking him to the finish at all costs.

Is Milan San Remo Still the Sprinter’s Classic?

Milan San Remo has traditionally been known as the sprinter’s classic, due to its penchant for being the easiest classic to ride and consistently serving up fast-finishing winners. Despite being the longest race on the calendar at close to 300km, and featuring a mid-race mountain pass along with two climbs inside the final 20km, Milan San Remo has consistently been the lone chance for pure sprinters like Erik Zabel, Mark Cavendish, and Mario Cipollini to win a monument.

However, the last three years have seen a stark shift away from the pure sprinter demographic to more traditional allrounders and even GC contenders. Michał Kwiatkowski won from a breakaway group in 2017, Vincenzo Nibali took a spectacular solo victory in 2018, and Julian Alaphilippe won from a 12-person peloton in 2019. None of these winners would even remotely fit the role of a sprinter (Alaphilippe’s surprising bunch sprint victory at stage 6 of Tirreno-Adriatico aside).

With editions in the 2000s and 1990s dominated by true sprinters, we have to go all the way back to the late 1980s to find three consecutive victories for non-sprinters  (Laurent Fignon ’88-’89 and Gianni Bugno ’90).

Part of the reason for this evolution is the increased speed the winners have been riding up the final climb of the race, the Poggio, which tops out 6km from the finish line.

On Saturday, the lead group of Julian Alaphilippe, Michal Kwiatkowski, Oliver Naesen, Alejandre Valverde, Peter Sagan, Matteo Trentin, and Wout Van Aert set the fastest time ever up the Poggio with a time of 5:37 (this is according to La Gazzetta Dello Sport. For the record, Kwiatkowski’s Strava file has him clocked at 5:41 with an average speed of 38.3km/h). This is over 30-seconds quicker than 2016, the last time a sprinter (Arnaud Démare) won the race, and more than a minute faster than 2014 when John Degenkolb took the victory.

Below is a chart depicting the average speed for the fastest time up the Poggio from 1979-2019 courtesy of Mihai Cazacu at Climbing-Records.com (who recorded a slightly slower, but still second-best ever time of 5:50 and average speed of 38.06 km/h).

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The chart depicts a noticeable increase in speed with the introduction of EPO to the peloton in 1991, along with a noticeable decrease with the introduction of the bio passport in 2009. Twitter anti-doping crusader Ufe recently published an annotated version of the chart.

While there can be endless debate about what the faster climbing times mean (for what its worth, level-headed cycling statistician Cillian Kelly seemed to find the increased speeds concerning shortly after the race) the fact is that the Poggio is being climbed with a ferocity we haven’t seen in years. It is difficult to imagine any pure sprinter staying with the lead group over the Poggio on Sunday following Deceuninck – Quick Step’s train, Alberto Bettiol’s race-splitting attack and Alaphilippe’s counter that killed off any sprinter’s chances.

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The fact that Deceuninck – Quick Step possessed a huge pre-race sprint favorite in Elia Viviani and chose to completely spike that card by drilling it up the Poggio in an effort to flush out any sprinters and get Alaphilippe in a reduced group over the top shows the seismic shift the race has undergone in only three years. To see a team with likely the strongest sprinter specifically working to isolate an all-rounder in a group of normally faster finishers (Sagan, Trentin, Kwiatkowski, Matthews) was astonishing. The fact Alaphilippe won the race shows their supreme confidence was correct, but it was still bizarre to see a team purposely burn of their star sprinter in the “sprinter’s classic” (If I was Viviani, I would have been on the phone with my agent immediately following the race to see if any other teams need a sprinter).

There must be widespread headshaking amongst the biggest, faster riders in today’s peloton at the sight of their lone monument being overtaken by the allrounders and Grand Tour champions. But the lack of bunch finishes is likely welcomed by RCS.

The race organizer added the  Poggio in 1960 after 89 riders made it to the line together in the 1959 edition. The climbed helped the attackers and reduced the size of the finishing group for a few years, but soon the sprinters began to dominate again.

To curb this domination, RCS added the Cipressa in 1982, but the increased speed of racing gave the sprinters the upper hand once again. RCS Sport planned to add an extra climb to the finale in 2014 an effort to burn off the fastmen and reduce the chances for big, boring sprint finishes.

While the plan to add an extra climb was thwarted by a landslide that rendered it unrideable, it seems the request for more aggressive racing has been answered organically. Whether by utilization of doping practices or simply realizing that riding up a climb faster makes it more difficult for riders that can’t ride up climbs as fast as you, Milan San Remo has seen a rapid evolution in the nature and speed of the finale.

This is all part of a larger trend of seeing the new wave of fast-finishing all-rounders that can climb with the best winning on all but the flattest, fastest finishes (which are featuring less and less in Grand Tours). It is hard to argue with the increased excitement factor, but it will be interesting to see if this new trend sticks, or if we see a reemergence or mass sprints on Via Roma once again.

The SkyTrain Isn’t Unstoppable

Team Sky has a well-earned reputation for taking the excitement out of professional cycling with their tactic of lining up the world’s best and most expensive riders at the base of the final climb of every race and riding the competition off their wheels until their designated leader rides away for the stage and overall victory. This type of mechanical riding has caused major races like the Tour de France to retool their route to foil it and even has the director of the Tour calling for power meters to be banned to keep the team from riding such a brutal and metronomic pace.

Despite rival teams spending millions of dollars and drawing up unusual strategies in order to beat Sky, a previously unknown 20-year old Slovenian just revealed how to beat Sky’s famed mountain train.

The secret? Simply have the strongest rider in the race on your team.

At the bottom of the final climb of Thursday’s second stage of the Volta ao Algarve, viewers were treated to a common sight. Team Sky moved to the front of the peloton and proceeded to gradually raise the pace to an internal level that burned off all but a select few competitors.

As the race neared the final kilometer and exhausted Sky domestiques swung off one-by-one after completing their pacemaking, leader-for-the-week Wout Poels was dropped off with slightly over a kilometer meter to strike the killer blow on the remaining competition.

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Poels pulled the triggered with a few hundred meters remaining, easily pulling in Amaro Antunes, who had made a late solo flyer and appeared set to take the stage win and all-but-seal overall victory. However, this well-worn script was flipped on its head, when previously unknown Tadej Pogačar (how the heck a tiny European country is churning out so many world-class riders will be explored in a future post) not only followed Poels, but jumped past him to take the stage win and the overall race lead.

To prove this performance wasn’t a fluke, Pogačar beat Poels by 36-seconds in the stage 3 time trial the following day. Pogačar now leads the race by over 30-seconds with only race decisive stage remaining.

The wealthiest team being outgunned by an unknown, 20-year rider with no team support really exposes the theory that Sky has hacked professional cycling with their uber-powerful mountain lead-out train and fancy power meters. The train is merely window dressing and somewhat obscures the fact that Sky nearly always possesses the strongest rider in a given race. When Chris Froome and/or Geraint Thomas show up at the Tour de France as the strongest climbers in the race, their team riding a fast pace on the final climb helps them only because they are simply fitter than every other rider attempting to match them.

On Thursday, Pogačar even benefitted from Poels’ teammates keeping the pace high and deterring attacks from rivals. Poels’ team did everything right, and even Poels himself laid in wait and attacked the way Froome or Thomas would have, but he simply didn’t have the fitness and power to ride a better rider off his wheel.

On its face, this result is somewhat inconsequential. A young rider beat a leader-less Sky at a small, early-season race in Southern Portugal. However, this shows that dominating mountain stages isn’t the video-game that the cycling media portrays it to be. When riders line up and ride up a mountain as fast as they can, the strongest rider usually wins. This is something to keep in mind as we head into the 2019 season and Sky heads to the Tour with two long-in-the-tooth leaders. We may finally begin to see younger, stronger riders land serious body blows on the previously unstoppable Sky dominance.

The Giro d’Italia Could Outshine the Tour de France in 2019

The Tour de France has been the undisputed premier grand tour in modern cycling. The biggest names in the sport routinely craft their seasons around the July race. While this has been the status quo, there is no denying the intense spotlight has been turning the Tour into a downright boring event. With the surprising amount of next-generation blue chip general classification riders announcing they will be targeting the Giro d’Italia in 2019, Italian grand tour is taking steps to overtake the Tour de France in terms of quality of the field and on-the-road excitement.

The most exciting young grand tour riders in the peloton have recently announced they are choosing to target the Giro instead of the Tour. Since the two races unveiled their respective routes, there was speculation about which race up-and-coming grand tour star Tom Dumoulin would target. It was a tough decision for the young star to make with the Giro offering three time trials, while the more-prestigious tour is set to feature a heavily mountainous route with only one individual time trial.

Dumoulin ended that speculation when he revealed he would be targeting victory at the Giro d’Italia in 2019 (some riders like Dumoulin have expressed interest in doubling up at the Tour. However, it will be more difficult for them to animate the race in 2019 compared to 2018 when riders had extra time between the brutal events due to the Soccer World Cup.). Reigning Vuelta a Espana champion Simon Yates followed suit by announcing he would also be putting his energy into a redemption ride at the Giro instead of targeting the Tour. After losing his lead by surrendering over an hour in the final three stages of the 2017 edition, Yates certainly has unfinished business in Italy and is placing emotion above rational thought in his schedule selection.

In addition to Dumoulin and Yates, Vincenzo Nibali will be chasing a third Giro victory while Movistar’s grand tour ingenue Mikal Landa has confirmed the Giro as his main 2019 goal. Lotto-Jumbo’s Primož Roglič has also confirmed his intention to the target the Giro, along with an appearance by Sky’s wunderkind Egan Bernal. Even defending Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas is now rumored to be kicking his title defense to the curb to line up at the Giro.

Giro d’Italia GC Contender Startlist
Tom Dumoulin (28 years old)
Simon Yates (26 years old)
Vincenzo Nibali (34 years old)
Mikal Landa (29 years old)
Primož Roglič (29 years old)
Egan Bernal (21 years old)
(Rumored)-Geraint Thomas (32 years old)

Tour de France GC Contender Startlist
Chris Froome (33 years old)
(Possibly targeting Giro)-Geraint Thomas (32 years old)
Romain Bardet (28 years old)
Nairo Quintana (28 years old)
Richie Porte (33 years old)
Thibaut Pinot (28 years old)

This lineup of young, exciting stars (plus one old exciting star) stands in stark contrast to a Tour de France that is set to feature the old-man Sky duo of Geraint Thomas (if he starts) and Chris Froome, Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana and Richie Porte. Bardet and Pinot will be considered contenders heading into the race, but both rider’s usually aggressive style consistently wilt under Sky’s infernal pace and the bright lights of the Tour. In theory, Quintana and Porte could add spice in the mountains, but Quintana has struggled to hang, let alone attack when things get serious on the climbs, and Porte has struggled to finish grand tours since leaving Sky in 2015. The Australian has only finished two grand tours since leaving to lead the BMC squad.

With this Tour lineup, it isn’t difficult to imagine the race providing little action with Sky setting a searing pace on the front while Froome and Thomas subtly duke it out for the win while insisting they are racing for the other. The race could very easily be even more a snoozefest that it has been in year’s past, with a significant chunk of the young talent siphoned off by the Giro d’Italia’s more dynamic race.

An Ascendant Race

While the Giro and Tour were on somewhat equal footing throughout the 1970’s, 1980’s, and early 1990’s, with non-Italian stars such as Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Stephen Roche, Tony Rominger, and Miguel Indurain all nabbing wins at the Italian race. However, the Armstrong era of the 2000s saw the international spotlight shift north of the Alps and the French grand tour took center stage. This shift saw the Giro become a local affair that failed to net a non-Italian winner between 1997 and 2007.

Alberto Contador, barred from the 2008 Tour de France, lined up at the Giro and broke the Italian winning streak. This began the slow emergence of international stars at the race. The organizers lured Lance Armstrong the following year during his highly-publicized comeback and have been expanding its profile ever since. This is apparent in its blue-chip winners in every edition between 2013 and 2018 (Vincenzo Nibali, Nairo Quintana, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali, Tom Dumoulin, Chris Froome).

The expansion has been quietly been serving up the best grand tour racing over the past few years and the Giro has emerged as the more exciting alternative to the lumbering, rigid Tour de France. The Italian race looks to expand on on this growing profile by luring the young, exciting talent away from the stranglehold Sky has had on the Tour in recent years.

The irony of major players choosing the Giro over the Tour in 2019 is that the Tour specifically designed next year’s route to minimize the effect Sky could have on the race. But by stripping out time trial kilometers and making the race more focused on the high mountains, they have alienated riders like Dumoulin and Roglic who rely on the ITT to create time gaps between them and the rest of the field. Even Yates, who would greatly benefit from the Tour’s TT-lite, climb-heavy course is opting to head south of the Alps for his major grand tour goal of the season.

The Giro’s relatively recent profile rise is undeniable and it stands to deliver the most exciting grand tour field of the 2019 season. The Tour is too powerful, wealthy and holds a far too valuable slot on the calendar to ever truly lose its title at the most important grand tour, but that doesn’t mean ASO should refrain from glancing over their shoulder. At least for this year, the most exciting young stars in the sport won’t have the Tour de France circled as their main target. It is clear the lack of competitive balance has caused the Tour’s sporting value to suffer. This has never been more clear by their lack of ability to demand the full attention of key grand tour stars. This is an issue that needs to be swiftly and effectively addressed by the top brass at ASO before the Tour begins to lose its position as the season’s premiere event.

Which Grand Tour Should Tom Dumoulin Target in 2019?

When the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, the sport’s two biggest Grand Tours, release their respective routes for the following season, there is always chatter about which race each favorite will choose to target. Chris Froome’s failed attempt at the Giro/Tour double in 2018 has likely put serious attempts to bag both to rest for the near future. This means each major favorite will be forced to choose a Grand Tour to target. While we know that Froome, the defending Giro champion, will mostly skip his title defense in an attempt to join the five Tour club, and Geraint Thomas, the defending Tour champion, will most certainly show up to the Tour to defend his 2018 title. While the path looks set for the two Sky stars, the 2017 Giro champion and rising star Tom Dumoulin is faced with an incredibly difficult decision in the 2019 season. Does the time trial crushing Dutchman head to a climb-heavy, TT-light Tour de France, or play it safe at the more suitable, but less prestigious Giro d’Italia?

The Dutch contender won his first and only Grand Tour to date when he took the 2017 Giro d’Italia title and has been tipped as a ‘star of the future’ since. But at 28, Dumoulin is rapidly entering his prime and needs to start winning Grand Tours on a semi-regular basis if he wants to be considered a true star. His runner-up placings at the 2018 Giro and Tour was a truly impressive feat, but the fact remains that Dumoulin needs to start winning on the sport’s biggest stage sooner rather than later. Another Giro title would certainly be a worthy feat, but if Dumoulin wants to ascend to the level of Froome, Nibali, and Thomas, he needs to Tour de France win.

Putting his Giro ambitions aside to go all in for a Tour de France title would the standard move for an ascendent Grand Tour star. However, Dumoulin, who thrives in time trials, must be concerned by the recently released Tour route that features a mere 27km of individual time trials.

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This is the second fewest amount of TT kilometers in any recent edition, behind only the paltry 15km in 2015. The lack of TTs is compounded by a course so laden with climbing that Tour director Christian Prudhomme has deemed it the ‘highest’ route of all time. If Geraint Thomas shows up in 2019 with the climbing form he sported in 2018, he would be close to unbeatable on the five mountaintop finishes.

In contrast to the Tour’s route, the 2019 Giro d’Italia route features a whopping three individual time trials that add up to a total of 56 kilometers. On the surface, this is a route designed to easily serve Dumoulin up his second Giro title, but if we dig a little deeper, a few cracks in this theory appear. The opening 8km time trial on stage one features the steep 1.8km climb to the San Luca basilica in Bologna (in recent years, the 10.8% average climb has been used as the finish for the Giro dell’Emilia race).

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The 34.7km TT on stage 9 features close 3,000 feet of climbing, with the entire second half of the course climbing at a 5-7% grade to the microstate of San Marino.

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Even the ‘flat’ final 15.6km TT on the final stage in Verona features a 4km-long climb right in the middle of the course that features close to 700 feet of vertical gain.

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These climb-heavy TTs are paired with an extremely mountainous final half of the race. Stage 20 features four brutal climbs deep in the Dolomites and will ensure the eventual winner of the race is a legitimate climber.

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While Dumoulin isn’t thought of the climber on par with Chris Froome, Simon Yates, Vincenzo Nibali or even Geraint Thomas, the results speak otherwise. The chiseled Dutchman was present in the lead group at every mountain top finish in the 2018 Tour, and showed up to the World Championships looking leaner than ever. The new physique likely cost him some raw power, which was evident when he surrender his World TT title to Rohan Dennis, but saw him hang with the absurdly steep climb specialist on the final Höttinger Höll climb. The 3.2km climb had an average gradient of 11.5%, and even hit grades up to 28% in sections. If Dumoulin, who traditionally just looked to hang with the best on the long climbs in the Grand Tours, was able to stay within seconds of the lightest and punchiest climbers in the world at the end of a long, brutal race, then it seems likely to expect him to be able to stay with the lead group on any climb the Tour and Giro can serve up.

Dumoulin’s 2018 season, in which he finished 2nd in both the Giro and Tour, in addition to a 4th place at the World Road Race Championships, was a spectacular feat of endurance and versatility but saw him fail to get a single mass-start victory. This means that he needs a statement win more than ever if he wants to continue to advance his star power. He most certainly would prefer that win to come at the Tour de France, but the lack of any significant time trial kilometers means he would need to take time on the mountains, versus simply limit his losses as he’s done in the past. With its lumpy TTs and mountainous last half, the Giro d’Italia presents challenges, but surely represents his best chance to get his bank his second Grand Tour victory.

If Dumoulin wants to play it safe and pad his palmares with a second Grand Tour title, he should focus solely on the Giro. But if he feels like rolling the dice and face steep odds in exchange for a massive payoff in the unlikely event of success, he should go all in for a highly unfriendly Tour route. If he goes in with the ultra-slim physique he had at World’s, he could upset the pure climbers on the supposedly shorter, punchier climbs spread throughout the Tour.

What Can Stop Team Sky at the 2019 Tour? (Hint: It’s not the route)

Since the 2019 Tour de France route was unveiled last week, speculation of who will benefit from the time trial-light course has been rampant. Two major narratives have emerged since the release of the course details. The first is that ASO has designed a course with minimal time trials and a preference for shorter, punchier climbs to benefit homegrown contenders like Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot. The second is that the arbiter of the race, Christian Prudhomme and ASO, are tired of watching Team Sky send out their formidable armada of word class riders to sit on the front of the peloton for three weeks with a pace that inevitably and methodically asphyxiates the competition.

ASO, a vestige of the old-school French cycling establishment, would certainly prefer a French winner of the national tour, and it is no secret that Sky’s stranglehold on the Tour since 2012 has stolen some of the race’s iconic luster. However, the assertion that ASO is tipping the scales in an attempt to foil the British squad has some major flaws.

The first major flaw in this argument is that if the French organization truly wanted to put the brakes on Sky’s dominance, they surely wouldn’t have included a 27km team time trial on the second stage. While Sky has never won a TTT at the Tour, the event has seen them solidify their GC leads whenever the discipline has been included in the route (2013, 2015, and 2018). Their collective team strength has seen them put time into their GC rivals and forced them into the unenviable position of chasing the world’s best stage race team with a deficit.

In theory, the event allows lesser time trialists like Bardet and Pinot to hide behind the collective strength of their teams and attempt to limit their losses. However, it is tailor-made to accentuate the team with the budget to afford the world’s biggest engines and makes it difficult for superior time trialist with weak teams, like Tom Dumoulin, to get an edge on the Sky leaders.

The second flaw in the theory is that, realistically, an anti-Sky route simply does not exist. When Chris Froome is on form, he is the best climber and time trialist in the world. To add to the team’s wide swath of dominance, at last year’s edition, his teammate Geraint Thomas proved himself to the strongest climber, while missing out on victory during the stage 20 time trial by a mere second. And even if their two veteran riders find themselves on the wrong side of their best performances come July, the team still has the young Colombian climbing sensation Egan Bernal. In short, Sky will likely show up to the 2019 Tour with riders that can potentially win over any and all terrain

Is an Anti-Sky Route Possible?

While there are riders that can challenge the Sky triumvirate of Thomas, Froome, and Bernal in the respective disciplines, nobody can match them as a combined force. If ASO substituted an individual time trial in place of the team time trial, hybrid time trialing/climbers like Tom Dumoulin could challenge Sky, but strong climbers with dubious TT pedigree like Quintana, Bardet and Pinot would hemorrhage time to Thomas and Froome before the race got to the mountains.

If ASO eliminated time trials from the route altogether, Thomas, Bernal, and Froome could outclimb the competition in the high mountains. Thomas won back-to-back mountain stages in the 2018 Tour, and looked like the strongest rider nearly every time the race tilted skyward. Even though age looks to be slowing him down, Froome would ritually slaughter every so-called climber on the opening mountain stage early in his reign, and his mountain ambush to win the 2018 Giro d’Italia on stage 19 proved he can still deliver knockout blows on the most demanding mountain stages. Bernal awed during the 2018 Tour with his ability to set a blistering tempo for an absurd amount of time up Alpe d’Huez, which prompted many pundits to anoint him the star of the future. Bernal wrestling team leadership away from his older teammates in 2019 would be a drastic departure from Sky’s familiar blueprint, but it wouldn’t be entirely shocking.

Since Sky’s top talent has proven to be the best at climbing and time trialing, while being competent in descending, tactical nous, dealing with the ‘chaos’ of the new, shorter mountain stages and winding roads of the rolling ‘trap’ stages, what route could ASO possibly serve up that could set them at a disadvantage?

Looming Issues in 2019

Even though Sky can’t be thwarted by a specific route, they do have a few major questions marks looming in 2019.

The defending Tour champion, Thomas, has spoken about inter-team tensions that arose during the race. For example, prior to the stage 3 team time trial, team directors informed Thomas that the team would not wait up if he flatted. This decision was made despite assurances that he would be a ‘protected’ rider going into the race. While he went on to win, these issues will arise once again at the 2019 Tour. While having two leaders can present an obvious advantage, it also doubles the odds of an ill-timed flat or mechanical derailing the team’s plans. For example, if Froome flats early on and Thomas is the closest rider, will he offer his bike to Froome as he did on stage 19 of the 2016 Tour, or will he ride on as Froome is left to wait for a spare from the team car? It is difficult to imagine a defending champion deferring leadership to a teammate, which means Sky will likely have to deal with the accommodating two full leaders from stage one.

The second major obstacle is the age of their top two riders. Froome will be 34 and Thomas 33 when the pair line up for the 2019 Tour. Winning a tour at this age is incredibly rare, with grand tour performances dropping off drastically after the age of 32 (Cadel Evans became the oldest rider to take a Tour title in the modern era when he won in 2011 at the age of 34). Also, once a ‘senior’ rider loses a Grand Tour, they almost never return to their winning form.

As Froome and Thomas find themselves on the downslope of their careers, Sky has the luxury of an insurance policy in Bernal. However, a nasty crash at the San Sebastian put him out of action for a few months, and his return at the late-season Il Lombardia saw him distanced on the final climb by Pinot and Vincenzo Nibali. If Bernal is looking to assume a leadership mantle at Sky, getting dropped by the likes of Nibali and Pinot isn’t a great sign. In addition to the questions of his ability to return to his Tour de France form, young Colombian stars have a history of burning bright at extremely young ages, only to plateau and struggle to improve the final few percentage points (i.e. Quintana, Uran, Henao). A similar development trajectory for Bernal would throw a wrench in Sky’s plans.

The 2019 Tour de France, while featuring limited time trial kilometers and a few punchy climbs, should play right into a Sky team at full strength. However, keep an eye out for increased team tensions and age considerations to potentially trip up Sky when the 2019 Tour finally gets underway.

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This piece has since been published by The Outer Line.

Saturday’s Climb to Mende Could Reveal Team Sky’s True Leader

Heading into stage 14 at the 2018 Tour de France, Team Sky is facing an old-fashioned leadership crisis. Chris Froome, looking for a record-tying fifth Tour title, is trailing his teammate Geraint Thoms by 1:39, and has the formidable cheekbones of Tom Dumoulin lurking a mere 11-seconds back. Most viewers are looking ahead to the brutal Pyrenees to decide Sky’s leader once and for all, but few are looking at the stages through the Massif Central, especially Saturday’s steep final pitch in Mende.

The three-kilometer climb comes right before the finish, averages a 10 percent gradient and will see the peloton hit the climb relatively fresh after a slow-rolling the first 2/3rds of the stage. It will offer no chance for the overall contenders to hide, and everyone’s form will be laid bare for the world to see. Potential gaps won’t be large, but they could be a bellwether for things to come in the higher mountains.

While Thomas and Sky are publically saying Froome is still the leader, Thomas has put time into Froome everytime the road has titled skywards and Thomas has just won consecutive mountain stages, the latest being atop the legendary Alpe D’Huez while wearing the Yellow Jersey. Only three riders have ever won consecutive mountaintop-finishes, and nobody has ever won on the Alpe in the leader’s jersey.  We can’t rule out a catastrophic third-week collapse, or a spat of bad luck,  but the chances are not looking good for Froome’s chances after such a dominant display in the mountains by Thomas.

When the Tour visited a carbon copy of tomorrow’s finish back in 2015, Steve Cummings schooled Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot to win the stage from the break, but back in the GC group, Chris Froome marked the early moves on the steep pitches, and then proceeded to shred the overall favorites on the flat final few hundred meters.

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If Thomas gets frisky and drops his rivals while Froome struggles behind, we could see Sky make a subtle tactical shift before the race heads into the final week. But if Froome can put on a display similar to 2015, it could be the initial rumblings that a comeback could be brewing. However, if they finish on the same time, we will have to wait for the Pyrenees to chose their leader for them.