Week 1 Giro d’Italia Diary: Roglic Looks like a Blast From the Past in a Throwback First Week

Stage 9:

Nine Stages into the Giro d’Italia, Primoz Roglic is riding a la Indurain* and an eventual victory in two weeks is looking more and more likely by the day. The Slovenian pummeled his GC competition in the stage 9 time trial. Simon Yates entered the stage looking to keep his losses to Roglic under a minute but instead hemorrhaged 3:11 over the 34.8km course. Most disturbingly for Yates, most of his losses came on the climb, his preferred terrain and where he was counting on putting serious time into Roglic in the third week. Roglic is the fastest rider on the flats, climbs and time trials, which my model tells me is critical when trying to win a bike race.

After Yates’ TT meltdown, Vincenzo Nibali looks like the only rider able to challenge Roglic since he was able to limit his losses to 1:05 in the TT, keeping his deficit at 1:44, and possess valuable experience and third-week killer instinct.

However, it feels odd to be declaring anything since the race has yet to enter the mountains. Race organizer Mauro Vegni chose to throw us back into the 90s by making us wade through ten sprint stages and two time trials before hitting any mildly interesting terrain.

Despite the lack of inclines, we’ve seen Roglic put serious time into his rivals at every opportunity and have seen a major pre-race favorite, Dumoulin, leave the race, and another, Yates, face significant time losses.

While anything can happen at the Giro, and some may point to Froome overcoming a 3:22 deficit on stage 19 as proof that this race isn’t over, this type of comeback likely won’t be possible unless Roglic suffers a tragic crash. Nibali was only able to come back from 4:33 down in the final week of the 2016 Giro due to a Kruijswijk crash and Froome relied on a massive tactical error in 2018 (Dumoulin sitting up to wait for Sebastian Reichenbach, which allowed the lead balloon from 40-seconds to a few minutes). Dumoulin’s grip on the 2017 Giro only loosened slightly when he had to pull over for an emergency poo at the base of one of the most critical climbs in the race.

Roglic appears to have a champions’ ‘cool-under-pressure demeanor’ and likely won’t be frazzled in the final week. Having said that, he doesn’t have a particularly strong or experienced team, and he entered the race with red-hot form. 14 days will have passed between the opening stage and the first major mountain stage, and all that riding through the rain and cold could send Roglic sliding down the other side of the fitness pyramid.

*Yes, Roglic doesn’t actually hold the leader’s jersey at the moment, but we all know that Valerio Conti is nothing but a puppet regime installed by Roglic and his Jumbo junta.

Other notes from the first week:

Stage 7:

Pello Bilbao gets in the breakaway, wins the stage and takes over a minute on the other GC favorites. He is now sitting best of the rest, 1:42 behind Roglic. The Basque climber is a bit of a Grand Tour enigma, but he could find himself leading the race if Roglic puts a foot wrong.

Why did Mitchelton send Lucas Hamilton in the breakaway on stage 7? Seems like a waste of precious energy that could be used when the race enters the high mountains

This runs contrary to the team’s tactics last year, where they used the entire team to peg back every breakaway, and certainly burns less aggregate energy, but is still burning up a valuable domestique. If Yates was truly confident, they would run the Sky model of no stage-wins. Knowing what we know now about his lackluster form or possible illness, was this a sign that he didn’t feel 100% confident and a young rider was let off the leash in an attempt to get something out of the race? Or is he so confident that his hubris is once again making him burn team energy unnecessarily?

This decision looked even worse after Hamilton failed to win the stage. That is a LOT of energy for a valuable domestique to burn.

UAE Team Emirates’ Incredibly Strange Week:

Stage 3: Fernando Gaviria is beaten by Elia Viviani in the sprint. Viviani is later suspended and Gaviria is given the stage win.
Stage 4: Had a rider leave the race due to suspicious blood values (found via internal testing)
Stage 6: Valerio Conti gets in the breakaway, is beaten at the finish line, gets second place and takes the leader’s jersey.
Stage 7: Gaviria abandons the race

Get a ‘stage win,’ hold leader’s jersey, but also fail to have a rider cross the line in first place and have a rider leave the race under suspicion of doping. Talk about the ultimate mixed bag.

Stage 1-9:

These long, throwback spring stages, while boring, are certainly taking their toll on the riders. Combine this with the cold and rainy weather, and they will hit the mountains with a significant amount of fatigue. Expect to see to a few days of big time losses from a few major favorites late in this race.

Flanders is a Waiting Game and Bettiol Played it Perfectly

The Ronde van Vlaanderen, or the Tour of Flanders, arguably the most prestigious and dynamic one-day race on the calendar was won by Alberto Bettiol, a complete outsider and unknown prior to Sunday. The 25-year-old Italian shocked the cycling world when he held off a chasing group comprising the best one-day riders in the world to take the first win of his professional career. While the favorites and pundits were shocked such an outsider rode way away with such a major win, those watching the race unfold in the finale 150km shouldn’t have been. Flanders is all about hiding from the wind and saving your bullets for the final 20km. Bettiol did exactly that and was rewarded with the biggest victory of his professional career.

The two most-hyped young riders coming into the race were Wout Van Aert and Mathieu Van der Poel, former and current Cyclocross World Champions who have experienced immediate success on the road. While they are both incredibly talented and undeniably some of the strongest rides in the race, their inexperience in long Classics was apparent on Sunday.

Flanders rewards those who wait,  but both Van der Poel and Van Aert were on the front eating wind while launching unsuccessful attacks much too far from the finish line.

As the screenshot below shows, Van der Poel and Van Aert were on the front attacking to split the field with 79kms left to race while their rivals sit in the wheels getting a free ride.

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Even a cursory re-watch of the race shows both Van der Poel and Van Aert using significantly more energy than eventual winner Bettiol at almost every point. In the screenshot below, Van der Poel is attempting to bridge up to a group of non-threating riders at a point where he should be recovering for the Oude Kawaremont.

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This trend of the two young guns using unnecessary energy continued throughout the day, with both Van der Poel and Van Aert attempting to ride away from the group with 28km to go while Bettiol deftly stayed in the wheels.

 

When Tim Wellens attacked a kilometer later, Bettiol was able to easily cover the move, while Van der Poel struggled to close the gap. Notice how a free-wheeling Bettiol is sitting right behind Van Aert while Van der Poel is spending precious energy behind.

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When Bob Jungels countered Wellens move, Bettiol is able to easily latch on, while Van der Poel and Van Aert are forced to chase (note Van Aert on the front pulling what remained of the peloton in the background).Screenshot 2019-04-08 at 1.28.18 PM

When Sepp Vanmarcke, who was strategically placed up the road earlier in the day, drops back, Bettiol has a teammate and a gap going into key sections.

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Up until this point, it is nearly impossible to find an image of Bettiol on the front. The Italian leveraged his team’s perfect strategy to get a free ride to the base of the Oude Kwaremont, where he launched his vicious race-winning move.

In fact, the first time he touches the front is when he goes around Van Avearmat during his race-winning attack 9-kilometers later.

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Bettiol was so fresh compared to the others that no one could even come close to matching his pace. You have to wonder if Van Aert and Van der Poel had ridden a smarter race if one or both of them would have been able to jump on the wheel. Instead, their precious energy had been burned in the many kilometers prior and all they could do is watch as the win goes up the road (also, Van der Poel’s crash with 60km to go and subsequent incredibly impressive chase likely sapped what was left of his race-winning mojo. On the other hand, the massive effort to chase back on meant he should have been even more conservative heading into the Oude Kwaremont).

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Bettiol would pull out 10-seconds by the top of the Oude Kwaremont, and take 10 more on the 3 kilometers to the base of the Paterberg. The bunch would take 3 seconds back on the steep climb but would fail to take any more time and ultimately finish 17-seconds in arrears.

The young Italian wasn’t a household name before Sunday, but he displayed a champion’s patience all day and capitalized on other’s over-eagerness and hesitation to take a beautiful solo win.

Other Race Notes:
Previously unknown 24-year old Dane Kasper Asgreen rode to an impressive second place after clipping off the front with a little over 50-kilometers to go. This invasion of the young guns could signal a major demographic shift amongst top favorites for these top-tier classics.

Alexander Kristoff looked incredibly strong up the steep bergs and invincible in the bunch sprint for third place. Watch for the big Norweigan to take the win at next weekend’s Paris-Roubaix.

Many are expressing disappointment with Deceuninck-Quick Step tactics and results, but they were successful and springing an unknown rider to second place after finding themselves in an incredibly difficult position with Bettiol up the road and Kristoff lurking in the chase group. Their star riders (Stybar, Gilbert, Jungels, Lampert) simply weren’t strong enough, but that is understandable after Stybar and Jungel’s incredible form in February/March, Gilbert being over-the-hill and Lampert looking off his best all season.

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.

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.