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A gust of wind in southeast France, a patch of slippery pavement in Andorra, a touch of wheels in Italy, and three grand tour winners who might never have been.
The Vuelta a España is over and the 2019 Grand Tour season is finished. As I look back, I’ve been playing the what-if game. What if this hadn’t happened? And what about that? How did this one incident impact the rest of the 2019 season?
Posing these hypothetical questions tends to drive some cycling fans crazy — so what better topic for an opinion column?
(That last one was a rhetorical question, a totally different class of question than a hypothetical.)
Richard Carapaz, Egan Bernal, and Primoz Roglic are the season’s Grand Tour champions. All three are first-time Grand Tour winners; none stood on the podium of any Grand Tour prior to 2019. All three riders took victories at races where several big overall favorites were unable to compete. And all three are trailblazers; prior to 2019 no rider from Ecuador nor Slovenia had ever won a Grand Tour, and no Colombian had ever won the Tour de France.
And yet it was all a bit serendipitous, wasn’t it? For each of these victories, everything sort of lined up perfectly.
It’s an interesting thought exercise to examine how each Grand Tour impacted the other — and to consider what might have otherwise been.
The obvious place to start is with the first Grand Tour domino – the Giro d’Italia. Or, more accurately, just before it.
Richard Carapaz won a 2019 Giro where Egan Bernal, Tom Dumoulin, and Alejandro Valverde were all expected to be among the top contenders. None ended up being factors in the race.
Bernal crashed in a slippery roundabout and broke his collarbone in training in Andorra one week before the race began. Dumoulin crashed after a touch of wheels deep into Stage 4 and was unable to continue. Valverde crashed in training in the leadup to Liège-Bastogne-Liège.
When team leaders pull out, it has a cascade effect. The whole landscape changes.
Bernal’s broken collarbone meant that the young Colombian would instead focus on the Tour de France, though initially slotted as a domestique.
But after Chris Froome crashed at the Criterium du Dauphine, and Bernal won the Tour de Suisse — filling in for an injured Geraint Thomas — Bernal became a co-leader for the Tour along with the 2018 champion. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves; more on the late changes to the Ineos Tour team in a minute.
Dumoulin’s crash at the Giro ultimately kept him out of the Tour as well as the upcoming world time-trial championship in Yorkshire. Dumoulin did not complete a Grand Tour this year.
With Bernal and Dumoulin absent, an on-form Carpaz — fourth overall at the 2018 Giro — took advantage of an intense rivalry between Roglic and Vincenzo Nibali to ride away with the maglia rosa. He and Movistar teammate Mikel Landa were able to navigate the leadership questions and intra-squad rivalry that so often plagues the Spanish squad at Grand Tours.
Pushing the hypotheticals a step further, it’s also fair to question whether or not Carapaz would have been given the freedom to contend for the overall win had Valverde not crashed in a training ride prior to Liège, forcing him out of the Giro. Sharing leadership with Mikel Landa was one thing; how Carapaz might have fit into the hierarchy with both Landa and Valverde is another question altogether.
Valverde bruised his tailbone just one day after he reportedly swallowed a bee midway through La Flèche Wallonne. And though he started at Liège, a race he’s won four times, Valverde climbed off and abandoned with about 100km remaining. Ultimately he wrote off the Giro, and reconfigured his schedule to compete at the Tour and the Vuelta.
Roglic, who was originally scheduled to race the Giro and the Tour, was too spent from his impressive early-season campaign to race in July, instead opting to focus on the Vuelta. That decision, in turn, allowed for his Jumbo-Visma teammate Steven Kruijswijk to carry his protected-leader status all the way to a podium finish in Paris.
A GUST OF WIND
One gust of wind blowing heavily on a downhill stretch of a time-trial course, combined with an ill-timed nose blow, had an effect that stretched through the Tour and Vuelta and, possibly, even further.
Chris Froome’s TT reconnaissance crash at the Criterium du Dauphine kept the 34-year old Ineos leader from attempting a fifth Tour win, and may have ended Froome’s chances of ever winning the Tour again. It opened the door for a well-rested Bernal to race as a co-leader at Ineos, and become a Tour champion at age 22.
By opening the door for Bernal’s Tour win, Froome’s injury also played a significant role in the decision for the Colombian to skip the Vuelta, where he might have otherwise had his first chance to race as a Grand Tour leader after that opportunity at the Giro was lost. Which was good news for Roglic.
Whether Bernal, Thomas, or Froome might have competed at the Vuelta was never made certain prior to Froome’s crash. Had a healthy Froome competed at the Tour, it’s conceivable that he might have also raced the Vuelta as he did five times in the six seasons between 2012 and 2017.
Following his Giro victory, Carapaz was scheduled to compete at the Vuelta until he crashed into fencing at the Profronde van Etten-Leur criterium on August 18, ruling out his participation. The severity of Carapaz’s injury remains a question. There has been a steady stream of whispers disputing Movistar’s claim that, in spite of treatment and a lack of fractures, the injury ruled him out from competing.
Instead, the theory goes, Carapaz was able to race but was punished by the team both for signing with Ineos prior to the Giro as well as entering the lucrative post-Tour criterium without the team’s permission. He was apparently unable to race the Vuelta, starting August 24, but was able to complete the 248km Bretagne Classic-Ouest-France on September 1.
Without Carapaz or a proven Ineos Grand Tour leader, Roglic instead had competition in the form of Valverde and Nairo Quintana at Movistar, Miguel Angel Lopez from Astana, and a surprising 20-year-old Tadej Pogacar of UAE Team Emirates in his Grand Tour debut. Fresh after sitting out the Tour, Roglic had a nearly perfect Vuelta, never truly challenged in the mountains and dominant as expected against the clock.
So what have we learned here? That hypotheticals are a waste of everyone’s time? I hope that’s not the only takeaway.
For starters, this season is a reminder that professional cycling is rife with serious injuries that can lay waste to an off-season of preparation and planning. A slippery roundabout, a gust of wind, a late-race pile up, or a dubious incident at a post-Tour criterium can have profound effects not only on a rider but also on his team, his competitors, and the way the rest of the season develops.
The result of all of these unforeseen circumstances: Dumoulin, Bernal, and Valverde were all ruled out of the Giro d’Italia; Froome, Dumoulin, and Roglic — second, third, and fourth at the 2018 Tour — were not on the start list at the Tour de France; and Froome, Carapaz, and Bernal were all absent from the Vuelta.
The net result of these changes to the plan: Bernal missed the Giro but won the Tour, Roglic skipped the Tour and won the Vuelta, and Valverde missed the Giro and finished second at the Vuelta.
A trio of new grand tour winners will have an impact on future seasons, too.
When Dumoulin next starts a Grand Tour, it will have been almost two years since he completed the 2018 Tour; he will certainly be lacking endurance in the final week. At his side could be Roglic, a more recent grand tour winner.
Froome has stated that he hopes to return to form and compete for a fifth Tour title, but his team now contains three Tour winners. Both Bernal and Thomas are now Tour champions, and deserving of protected-rider status in July. Ineos is unlikely to field a squad of three protected riders and five domestiques to win the sport’s biggest race. It’s fair to say the “trident approach” employed by Movistar has failed at the Tour, and that’s been between three riders who have never won the race.
If nothing else, the 2019 season demonstrated why team managers must constantly be putting together contingency plans in the event that their Grand Tour leader is unable to compete.
Managing three Tour winners is situation Ineos manager Dave Brailsford will need to prepare for once the 2020 Giro and Tour routes are announced next month, knowing full well that circumstances can, and will, change. He’ll also have Carapaz on his 2020 roster, a Giro champion who will rightfully expect team leadership at a Grand Tour.
With his latest signing, Jumbo-Visma team manager Richard Plugge will be juggling a similar scenario with Dumoulin, Roglic, and Kruijswijk — a pair of Grand Tour winners and a recent Tour de France podium finisher.
It’s noteworthy that every Grand Tour is unique not just for its route, but also for the contenders who are healthy at the start line and are able to finish the race. Each race is different, and each affects the others in ways seen and unseen.