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The days that follow the Tour de France always leave cyclings fans with a bout of melancholy. After three weeks of closely following the biggest event in the sport, the vacuum that follows is profound. Yes, there are other races, but none that demand the collective attention of the Tour.
This year’s race was exceptionally riveting. Heading into the two final mountain stages there were six riders within 2:14 on the general classification, with a still-surprising maillot jaune in Julian Alaphilippe. At the tail end of a decade of Tours marked by domination by Team Sky, the 2019 Tour was a much-needed breath of fresh air.
In the end, Team Ineos won the race with 22-year-old Egan Bernal, and took second overall as well with defending champion Geraint Thomas, to make seven victories across eight years with four different riders. But the general classification doesn’t tell the whole story, and even with the same team winning again, there were new storylines: The first Colombian Tour champion. The youngest Tour winner in 110 years. The first non-British Tour winner from the British team.
And of course, there was Alaphilippe, who won over the hearts of the French with his valiant riding and exuberant charisma. Bernal may have won the race, but Alaphilippe, who won two sages and spent 14 days in the yellow jersey, was clearly the story of the 2019 Tour de France.
That’s not meant to take away from Bernal’s achievement, but rather the reality of how the race played out. Bernal only wore yellow for two days, and was denied the opportunity to contest for a stage win at Tignes due to the weather neutralization.
Julian Alaphilippe’s defiance, the conspicuous absence of Chris Froome, and Egan Bernal’s calm and calculated approach all made for an open and exciting Tour.
So what can we expect to see next year?
A HARD START IN NICE
While we won’t know the full 2020 Tour route until it’s announced in October, we do know that the 107th edition of the Tour de France begins along the Côte d’Azur in Southern France. The Grand Départ will be held in Nice, and the second stage will see some legitimate GC action.
The 170km opener begins and ends in Nice, on hilly circuits that deliver several small climbs but nothing that will prevent a sprinter from winning the stage and wearing the first maillot jaune.
Assuming a pure sprinter like Caleb Ewan or Dylan Groenewegen wins, that rider’s time in yellow likely won’t be long. Stage 2 will feature the 16km Col de la Colmiane, reaching 1,600 meters elevation and averaging 6.2 percent, followed by the Col de Turini, a 14.9km averaging 7.3 percent.
The final categorized climb, the Col d’Eze, is short and steep — 7.8km, averaging 7% — and tops out 33km from the line. After passing the finishing line in Nice, the peloton will tackle one final climb, the uncategorized Col des Quatre Chemins, before finishing on the Promenade des Anglais along the Mediterranean waterfront. It’s an extremely tough and unconventional start to the Tour.
The Tour has started in Nice one other time, in 1981, where Bernard Hinault won the opening stage. The last time the race visited Nice was in 2013, just off the Grand Départ from Corsica; Orica-GreenEdge won the team time trial that day, with Simon Gerrans moving into yellow.
This time around, the rider who takes yellow in Nice may well stand on the podium in Paris three weeks later. How his team chooses to defend the maillot jaune could have a direct impact on how the race develops.
DAVE BRAILSFORD’S 2020 DILEMMA
On one hand, Team Ineos manager Dave Brailsford has a dream scenario heading into the 2020 Tour — three Tour champions on the same squad.
On the other hand, Team Ineos manager Dave Brailsford has a nightmare scenario heading into the 2020 Tour — three Tour champions on the same squad.
Brailsford has, thus far, managed competing GC leaders at the Tour quite well. While their relationship didn’t survive the race, Team Sky finished first and second at the 2012 Tour with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome. The team placed Geraint Thomas and Froome on the podium in 2018, with Bernal and Thomas finishing first and second in Paris on Sunday.
But 2020 will be unique. Having co-leaders is a very different situation to having three GC leaders — just ask Movistar general manager Eusebio Unzué. And this time around, all three aren’t just GC contenders, they’re Tour champions. Will the winners of the three previous Tours show up in Nice on the same squad?
In 2018, Froome was a four-time Tour winner fresh off a Giro victory whose Tour participation was still in question; Thomas very much knew his place in the pecking order, and the balance only shifted when it became clear who was the stronger rider. This year, Thomas was defending champion and Bernal was the understudy; Bernal pledged his allegiance to Thomas throughout the first week, and it only became clear which rider would go on to win after the Bernal broke clear on the Galibier on Stage 18 and took 32 seconds.
Froome’s fitness following his devastating injuries in June is an unknown quantity, but based on what Brailsford has stated — that Froome’s recovery is “well ahead of where he was hoping to be” — there’s no reason to believe he won’t be back in top form by the start in Nice. And even if he’s not at 100 percent, there’s also little reason to believe he would be willing to ride in a support role for Bernal or Thomas; a four-time Tour champion demands that level of respect within a team.
Likewise, after winning in 2018 and finishing second in 2019 — particularly after a suboptimal lead-up to the Tour, including four crashes between June 18 and July 23 — Thomas would be well within his rights to expect full support as a protected leader.
Yet in his typical self-deprecating manner, Thomas said he’d been honored to be part of the young Colombian’s victory, acknowledging that Bernal is the future of the sport.
“He’s 22, who knows how many of these he is going to win,” Thomas said. “He was such a nice guy, and it was a pleasure to stand next to him on the podium. Egan is the future, and when I’m 45 and old and fat and sat in the pub watching him win a 10th Tour de France, I can say I told him all I know.”
As for Bernal, he’ll be in the unusual position as the youngest and least-experienced of the three riders, while also being the most recent Tour champion. It’s almost impossible to imagine a scenario where Brailsford doesn’t bring Bernal back to the Tour in a protected role. Last year, Brailsford inked Bernal to an unprecedented five-year contract; it’s unlikely that was done with a super-domestique role in mind.
“[Bernal] is only 22, and he’s only getting better,” said Tim Kerrison, Ineos Head of Athlete Performance, on The Cycling Podcast. “He’s with us for a few more years to come, and we’re certainly going to do our best to keep him on the top step of the podium.”
The team is also rumored to be signing Giro winner Richard Carapaz, but as the only Grand Tour winner on the squad who hasn’t won a Tour de France, it’s likely his personal Tour ambitions will be put on ice in the foreseeable future, instead focusing on the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.
The team will also need to manage the aspirations of younger stage racers, such as 22-year-old Pavel Sivakov, who finished ninth at the Giro d’Italia in his Grand Tour debut, and 21-year-old Ivan Sosa, who finished second overall at Colombia Tour in February.
But those conversations are, to some extent, secondary. First and foremost, how does a team designate an eight-rider roster with three former Tour champions?
“It’s the same we’ve had for quite a few years now, the challenge of having multiple great, strong leaders,” Kerrison said. “We’ll manage it as we have every other year. Chris is doing an amazing job with his rehab, and he’s very determined to be back and have a crack at his fifth Tour [victory] next year. It will be a fantastic asset to have, as a team, such strong leaders. We’ll tackle that next year.”
Brailsford struck a similar tone. “There’s more than one way to win the Tour de France,” he said. “A lot of people asked questions, but in the end strategy paid off over chaos. Teamwork paid off over individualism.”
It’s a great soundbite, and it looks brilliant when it succeeds, but the 2020 Tour could present Brailsford his greatest managerial challenge to date.
JUMBO VISMA’S NEXT STEP FORWARD
Team Ineos may have won the race and finished second overall, but Jumbo-Visma had nearly as good a Tour de France, winning four stages and finishing third overall with Steven Kruijswijk.
The team held the yellow jersey after the first two stages following wins in Brussels, first by Mike Teunissen and then by the entire squad in the team time trial. Stage wins from Dylan Groenewegen and Wout van Aert followed, and Kruijswijk finished off the job by rounding out the GC podium.
Behind the scenes, the team is rumored to have taken another step towards matching Team Ineos by singing Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, the 2017 Giro d’Italia winner who finished as runner-up to Froome at the 2018 Giro and runner-up to Thomas at the 2018 Tour.
It’s unclear exactly what this will mean for the team’s other GC riders, namely Kruijswijk and Primoz Roglic, who finished fourth at the 2018 Tour and third at the Giro d’Italia in May. It’s a safe bet that all three men won’t be on the start line in Nice in July 2020, but even if it’s Dumoulin and one of the others — with returned support from riders like Laurens De Plus, Robert Gesink, and George Bennett — it’s a very strong line up.
It’s also unclear what this will mean for Groenewegen. The Dutch sprinter’s Tour was off to a bad start when he went down in a Stage 1 crash just 1.5km from the finish. He bounced back to win Stage 7 in halon-sur-Saône, and finished second behind Caleb Ewan on two other occasions, confirming that he’s one of the quickest finishers in the pro peloton. But given the UCI’s 2018 rule change reducing Grand Tour teams from nine to eight riders, will there be room for a sprinter on a squad designed to win the Tour?
From one perspective, it’s hard to imagine a Dutch team with a Dutch sponsor leaving its star Dutch sprinter off the Tour line-up. From another perspective, if team manager Richard Plugge truly wants to mount a challenge to Team Ineos, he may need to employ the same strategy as Brailsford, who hasn’t taken a sprinter to the Tour since Mark Cavendish in 2012.
Prior to the start of the Tour, Groenewegen was asked about the possibility of Dumoulin joining the squad in 2020. “I would really appreciate it if Dumoulin came to our team,” he said. “I don’t know what the developments are or how things work, but I would certainly encourage it.”
According to reports, Groenewegen and Roglic are signed with the team through 2023, while Kruijswijk, van Aert, and Gesink are signed through 2021. So for at least the next two years, Plugge, like Brailsford, will have some very interesting roster decisions to make.
FRENCH FAN FAVORITES
What can we expect to see from the French riders who lit up this year’s Tour? That’s a question that’s difficult to answer at this point.
Given his 14 days in yellow and fifth-place overall finish, Alaphilippe was understandably asked if he would return to the Tour with the general classification in mind. The winner of Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche, and Flèche Wallonne answered: “Maybe the general classification will be something that I would focus on in the future, but not at all next year. First, I want to explore the Tour of Flanders.”
It’s understandable, for a one-day specialist on a Belgian team. It’s also impossible to imagine Alaphilippe not returning next July, so make of that what you will.
As for Thibaut Pinot, the stage winner atop the Tourmalet who abandoned the race on Stage 19 with a muscle tear in his left thigh, he has vowed to return next year with the ambition of winning the race.
The Groupama-FDJ had been through a rollercoaster of a Tour which included gaining time on Thomas at La Planche des Belles Filles on Stage 6, and gaining more time with a late-race attack alongside Alaphilippe into Saint-Étienne on Stage 8, but then losing his advantage when caught out in the crosswinds on the narrow road to Albi on Stage 10.
The popular Frenchman bounced back to take victory atop the Tourmalet on Stage 14, putting him back in the frame for a shot at the overall win; the following day, at Prat d’Albis, he took an additional 18 seconds from Bernal and 49 seconds from Thomas and Kruijswijk.
When he abandoned, Pinot was sitting fifth overall, 1:50 behind Alaphilippe, with what was then believed to be two big mountain stages to come.
“Since the Pyrenees, I felt I was capable of doing it,” said Pinot. “Without this problem, I’m sure I would have done it. I was convinced, and nothing was going to stop me. In the end, we’ll never know. It will take some time to come to terms with that.”
MOVISTAR’S TRICKY TRIDENT
An entire book could be written about Movistar’s bizarre tactics at this year’s Tour de France, which ended with one stage win and three riders in the bottom half of the top 10 overall, but no real challenge to the general classification.
Some of that can be attributed to Mikel Landa’s unfortunate crash on Stage 10, where he lost 2:09. Without that incident, Landa might have finished fifth overall, at 2:14, instead of sixth, at 4:23. But the unusual moments were undeniable: Landa attacking and passing Nairo Quintana from the breakaway without a word, a smile, or a nod at the base of the Prat d’Albis on Stage 15; Movistar driving the chase as Quintana was up the road on Stage 18; Landa’s awkward pause when asked if he would support Quintana after his win on Stage 18; Alejandro Valverde chasing and catching Landa at the finish line at Val Thorens on Stage 20.
Some of this can be attributed to clashing of egos. Some of it can be attributed to the inverse of Brailsford’s quote — individualism over teamwork. And some of it can be attributed to shifting loyalties. Quintana has been confirmed to be joining Arkea-Samsic next year. Landa’s future has been rumored to be with Bahrain-Merida, which is losing Vincenzo Nibali to Trek-Segafredo, though team manager Eusebio Unzué is hoping to hold on to the Basque climber. And it’s likely the team has already lost Carapaz, to Ineos.
Enric Mas, the Spaniard who finished second at the Vuelta a España last year, is rumored to be coming to the team from Deceuninck-Quick Step, but based on his performances over the last three weeks, he can hardly lay claim to protected rider status. Mas fell ill during the second week and finished 22nd overall after sacrificing his GC ambitions to protect Alaphilippe’s maillot jaune.
Assuming Unzué can retain Landa and sign Mas, he could again go to the Tour with three potential GC leaders. That hasn’t worked out so well in the past, and with Quintana gone, perhaps the dynamics will change. Perhaps Valverde, who sacrificed his GC chances early this year but still managed to finish ninth overall, will not be part of the conversation; he’ll be 40 next July.
Obviously this will depend on where Landa ends up; assuming he stays, it will depend on how Unzué manages egos and expectations. He pulled it off with Carapaz and Landa at the Giro, so it can be done.
GREEN, AND WHITE
We’ll have to wait another year to see Mathieu van der Poel challenge Peter Sagan for the green jersey. The Dutch star is focusing on the Olympic mountain-bike race next summer, and won’t be racing the Tour.
Given that Sagan has finished seven Tours and won seven green jerseys, it’s a pretty safe bet that he’ll probably win the points classification again.
It’s possible that Sagan could see a legitimate challenge for the green jersey from Wout van Aert, but if Jumbo-Visma is truly aiming to win the overall with Dumoulin and/or Roglic, the young Belgian would likely be expected to holster his personal ambitions for team objectives.
As for the white jersey awarded to the best young rider, allow me to introduce you to a promising young Colombian named Egan Bernal, who turns 23 in January. He’ll likely take the white jersey in Nice on Stage 2. Will he trade it for yellow later in the race?
Once again, that will be a dynamic Dave Brailsford will be forced to manage — a difficult puzzle every team manager would love to try to solve. Could the dream team become a nightmare? Stay tuned.