Tour de France Rest Day Ramble: Who is Trending Up & Team Ineos’ Leadership Battle

As the Tour de France heads into the final week, the race is as wide open as we’ve seen in recent memory. Six riders are clustered within 2:14 of the lead, which is astonishing in a race where the winner has been all but decided by the second rest day.

Endless questions hang over the third week, like what the hell happened to Team Ineos(Sky), who is the leader at Ineos, and most importantly, who will emerge as the race winner by this time next week?

While Julien Alaphilippe currently holds a hardy 1:35 lead over Geraint Thomas, he isn’t a proven elite climber over the highest Alpine passes. With world-class climbers like Egan Bernal and Thibaut Pinot and powerful diesel-engines like Geraint Thomas and Steven Kruijswijk all within 2 minutes, his lead appears tenuous with three brutal days in the alps, featuring horrid climbs like the Izoard and Galibier, still to go.

To help visual the direction each contender is trending, I laid out the gap each one had to Alaphilippe following the first true mountain stage on Saturday’s along with the gaps facing them after Sunday’s Stage 15, along with the pros and cons for each rider’s chance at overall victory.

—————————————————–

Egan Bernal

  • Following Stage 14:
    3 minutes down on Julien Alaphilippe
    46 seconds down on Kruijswijk
    58 seconds on Geraint Thomas
  • Following Stage 15:
    2 minutes 2 seconds down on Julien Alaphilippe
    15 seconds down on Kruijswijk
    27 seconds on Geraint Thomas

Pros: Has to be considered one of the best climbers in the race just as we head into three difficult and high days in the Alps. Looked strong in the finale of today’s stage. He is a better climber than the three riders in front of him on GC.

Cons: Completely unproven in a leadership role in the third week of a grand tour. Was gapped by Thibaut Pinot in the last few hundred meters of today’s stage.

Steven Kruijswijk

  • Following Stage 14:
    2 minutes 14 seconds behind Alaphilippe
    12 seconds down on Thomas
  • Following Stage 15:
    1 minute 47 seconds behind Alaphilippe
    12 seconds down on Thomas

Pros: Incredibly consistent rider. Tends to not go too deep and his fifth place at last year’s race shows a proven history of riding strong in the third week.

Cons: Had to ask George Bennett to slow down in the final few kilometers of Saturday’s stage. History of the third-week crash and time loss in the 2016 Giro still hangs over him.

Geraint Thomas

  • Following Stage 14:
    2 minutes 2 seconds behind Julien Alaphilippe
  • Following Stage 15:
    1 minute 35 seconds behind Julien Alaphilippe

Pros: As things currently stand, Thomas is the main benefactor of an Alaphilippe collapse in the high mountains.

Cons: He appears to at less than his best and has lost significant time in the last two mountain stages. Currently in an open war-of-words with co-leader Egan Bernal.

Thibaut Pinot

  • Following Stage 14:
    3 minutes 12 seconds behind Alaphilippe
    1 minute 10 seconds behind Geraint Thomas
    58 seconds behind Steven Kruijswijk
    12 seconds behind Egan Bernal
  • Following Stage 15:
    1 minute 50 seconds behind Alaphilippe
    15 seconds behind Geraint Thomas
    3 seconds behind Steven Kruijswijk
    12 seconds ahead of Egan Bernal

Pros: Appears to be the strongest rider/climber in the race. If Alaphilippe cracks, Pinot has an extremely manageable amount of time to make up on the riders currently in front of him and his punchy nature makes him the most likely to nab precious time bonuses.

Cons: Lost time in the crosswinds on stage 10. Has a history of inconsistent performances late in grand tours. Claims to struggle in the heat with a major heatwave rolling through France for the final few stages.

—————————————————–

The first thing that jumps out is how extremely tight the race is behind Alaphilippe. Pinot is only 3 seconds behind Kruijswijk, 15 seconds behind Thomas with Bernal only 12 seconds behind him. This means that if Alaphilippe slips and loses the lead, the Tour could very well be decided on finishing time bonuses on these final mountain stages. This has the potential to set up the most exciting final weekend since Lemond triumphed over Fignon by 8 seconds on the final stage in 1989.

The second trend that jumps out is just how quickly Pinot made up the time he lost in the crosswinds on stage 10. He nailed back 1 minute 41 seconds on Thomas in just two mountain stages by just being simply stronger than the rest when the race goes uphill.

The third is how Bernal is emerging as Ineos’ best shot at overall victory. The Colombian stumbled in the time trial, but has furiously eaten into that deficit and made up time on co-captain Thomas over the weekend.

When we look ahead at the profiles for the brutal final three alpine mountains stages (Thursday, Friday, and Saturday), it is clear that climbing prowess will be key to riding into Paris in Yellow.

45pfibp3pob31

Many pundits have said that Ineos has to pick a leader and that Thomas is the safer choice, but I’m curious how they are coming to that conclusion. Thomas is hemorrhaging time in the mountains just as the race heads into the Alps. Meanwhile, his teammate who is only 27 seconds in arrears is clearly the superior climber. If I was forced to pick one, Bernal has to be considered the most likely to ride into Yellow in the Alps.

Another issue is the team’s mysterious case of missing form. While some have said it is simply not the Sky team of yore, they came to the Tour with the exact same support team in both 2018 and 2019 (subbing Dylan van Baarle for the injured Chris Froome in 2019). If they continue to lack their usual firepower, it will have major implications in the final few mountain stages where a team leader could be isolated from their team with 50km and an HC climb before the finish.

An entire team losing their mojo in 12 months is incredibly strange and something we’ll explore in more depth in a later feature.

Podium Prediction:
1st Pinot
2nd Bernal
3rd Kruijswijk

Tour de France Diary: What Happened to the Team Ineos (Sky)Train on Stage 6?

Geraint Thomas removed any lingering doubts about his form when he threw down an incredibly impressive performance by distancing every major rival on the brutally steep La Planche des Belles Filles. Some had questioned how the lackluster form Thomas’ displayed so far in 2019, an assurgent young teammate, and the lack of preparation racing would affect his chances, but the Welshman answered those questions in a few short minutes on Thursday and appears to be the favorite to take the overall for the second year running.

While Thomas might be back on the form that saw him dominate the 2018 edition, his Ineos’ team trademark train was notably absent on the final climb. Wout Poels was dropped on the day’s penultimate climb and Ineos was down to one helper shortly after starting the final climb.

It is possible this is an incredibly measured strategy to save energy for the brutal third week. However, when we consider the team’s lackluster performance in the team time trial, where they lost a whopping 20-seconds to Jumbo-Visma, the fact that they are simply not as strong as years past is a very real possibility.

With a full 4km left on the final climb on stage 6, viewers were treated to the highly unusual sight of Ineos not leading the peloton up a climb at the Tour de France. When Alejandro Valverde went to the front to drive the pace for his Movistar teammates, we knew something was seriously amiss.

Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 4.19.37 PM

A little over a kilometer later, Ineos was on the front, but the pace had lagged to the point that attacks were able to come over the top and immediately get distance off the front. We can even see Michal Kwiatkowski, leading the peloton, radioing back to the team car in a sign of mild panic and confusion.Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 4.20.50 PM

Less than a kilometer later, Kwiatkowski was dropped while the team’s two leaders, Thomas and Egan Bernal, were left to fend for themselves on the wheels of Groupama–FDJ (just let that sink in for a minute).

Screenshot 2019-07-11 at 4.21.19 PM

Thomas ultimately nullified any potential issues the lack of team strength presented with his individual strength, but it is certainly something to keep an eye on as the race advances. Ineos has kept the race on an extremely tight leash in Tour’s past, and if they aren’t able to do the same this year, Thomas could be forced to deal with attacks and isolation in a way he wasn’t during his winning ride in 2018.

Other Notes:

  • Richie Porte finished with Egan Bernal, Adam Yates and Jakob Fuglsang 9-seconds behind Thomas on stage 6. While his Trek Team’s dismal performance in the stage 2 TTT put him in a serious hole, the Tasmanian is flying under the radar and appears to be riding as well as he has all season.
  • Nairo Quintana limited his loses to 7-seconds on a stage 6 finish that certainly didn’t suit him.  This is likely one of his best chances to win the race overall and he looks to have sorted out the form issues that have plagued him for the past few seasons. Keep an eye on the slight Colombian when the race hits the high mountains.
  • If Thomas won the battle for the general classification on stage 6, Thibaut Pinot came in a close second. The French rider appears to be as relaxed and on form as we’ve ever seen him.
  • Current race leader Giulio Ciccone has a substantial gap on the serious climbers and time trialists. The young Italian is certainly a talented climber and it will be interesting to see how long he can hold Yellow. I have a feeling it will be for much longer than the conventional wisdom is giving him.
  • Thursday’s stage 6 saw the likely end of GC riders for Romain Bardet and Vincenzo Nibali. This is great news for fans as the two riders will look to animate the race in the third week as they hunt for spectacular stage wins.

Geraint Thomas Should Be Worried About Egan Bernal

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.

 

The Upcoming Tour de France Gets More Interesting by the Day

Back in January, I wrote that the Giro d’Italia had the potential to outshine the Tour de France in 2019. With a large field of exciting young talent and the (in)famously chaotic and unpredictable Italian terrain, the Giro seemed poised to topple the Tour, which has become a bit of a snoozefest in recent years.

When that original piece was written, the 2018 Tour de France runner-up Tom Dumoulin and 21-year old Egan Bernal were both targeting the Giro d’Italia. However, Dumoulin was forced to leave the Giro following a crash on stage 4. While this seriously dampened the fight for the general classification in Italy,  it adds fuel to the Tour’s GC fire.

Meanwhile, Egan Bernal ‘broke’ his collarbone a week before the start of the Giro. This means he will likely line up as a legitimate leader of Team INEOS’, who are already struggling to balance the ambitious of last year’s winner Geraint Thomas and 4-time winner Chris Froome.

There were mummers that the Colombian sensation would be lining up at the Tour all the way back in March. I believe this was the INEOS team brass sending up a trial balloon as they looked for an insurance policy as their aging superstar duo struggled through their worst spring campaigns in years.

Since Bernal is already back on the bike and setting PRs on training climbs less than two weeks after breaking his collarbone, it is safe to assume he is going to line up at the Tour de France (which features a route perfect for Bernal with a high-altitude, numerous climbs and a mere 27km of TTs).

I personally subscribe to the fringe conspiracy theory that Bernal and INEOS faked the collarbone break as cover to duck the Giro and get their best climber at the Tour without seriously damaging Thomas’ and Froome’s egos (who have both been quietly struggling to find form in recent months). Bernal’s incredibly quick recovery could potentially support this crackpot idea (release the x-rays!).

All of this combines to give us a fantastically dramatic backdrop for this summer’s Tour. Having three legitimate contenders on one team will be thrilling to watch and could potentially dull the team’s unmatchable strength. The INEOS riders give all the right answers through gritted smiles, but the tension will simmer under the surface and they will have to make due will fewer domestiques and team organization in critical moments (see: Froome’s lack of a full team while chasing after his crash on stage 1 of the 2018 Tour).

The addition of fresh (and hopefully healthy) Dumoulin, the best GC rider under the age of 30, makes this even more interesting. Dumoulin’s focus on the Giro was always a strange fit since he won the race back in 2017 and seems poised to take the title of the best grand tour rider on the planet from Froome. His preparation for the Giro seemed off and it felt like he was hedging to leave something for the Tour, while Primoz Roglic came in red, red, hot, and looks impossible to beat at the moment. The only way he can advance his career and raise his profile is a Tour de France title, so as sad as it is to see him drop off of the Giro, this short-term loss could pay major dividends in July.

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.

tumblr_ph5rt9DIBR1ropreyo1_1280

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).

San_Luca_Bologna_profile

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.

tumblr_phi7z8z8EY1ropreyo3_r1_1280.png

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.

tumblr_phk7j2UKV61ropreyo2_r1_1280

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.

tumblr_phk7j2UKV61ropreyo1_1280

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.

——————————

This piece has since been published by The Outer Line.