Blazin' Saddles: 10 burning questions following the 2019 Tour de France
After Colombia's first ever Tour de France victory, it's time to look back at the last three weeks and gauge the achievements of Egan Bernal el al. Our cycling correspondent Felix Lowe answers the questions at the tip of everyone's tongues following an enthralling, yet ultimately anticlimactic, edition of the world's biggest bike race.
How many Tours can Bernal win?
It's a silly question and one for which there is no answer. When Jan Ullrich burst onto the scene in 1996 finishing behind Telecom teammate Bjarne Riis, we all thought he would be a shoo-in to join the five-Tour club.
Ullrich won in 1997 and then went on to finish runner-up in his next four Tours. This was largely thanks to the unexpected rise of Lance Armstrong and his pharmaceutical arsenal. Who's to know that there isn't a new Armstrong waiting to stymie Bernal's career?
Likewise, when Alberto Contador burst onto the scene, there was talk of him being the heir to Armstrong's throne. Amazingly, the Spaniard only ever won two Tours.
After his crowning on the Champs-Elysees, Bernal's Ineos teammate Wout Poels told reporters that: "We're going to see Bernal like this for the next ten years." And there is some logic there. After all, Bernal is just 22 and Geraint Thomas won his first Tour aged 32.
But it's impossible to tell right now whether Bernal can sustain this early promise throughout his 20s and into his 30s – just as it's impossible to tell who will emerge as his big rivals. That's because, in all likelihood, the riders that will most challenge Bernal have yet to turn professional. To put it into context: Bernal still has three more years of qualifying for the white jersey.
For the sake of giving an answer, though, let's just say that Bernal arguably has a better chance now of joining the five-Tour club than his teammate Chris Froome, who, regardless of how he responds in coming back from serious injury, faces serious opposition from within his own team in his quest to win that elusive fifth yellow jersey.
Can Team Ineos do a one-two-three next year?
Last year they placed both Thomas and Froome on the podium, with Bernal down in 15th; this year the Colombian and Welshman were first and second in the absence of the Kenyan-born Briton – so, in theory, they're well placed to pull off an unprecedented modern-day clean sweep.
Will they do it? It's unlikely. After all, it would be a surprise if all three riders feature for Ineos' eight-man squad in the Tour – and if they are, it will be after one of them co-leads the team with new arrival Richard Carapaz in the Giro d'Italia.
Movistar have proven over the last few years that too many cooks spoil the yellow broth, with Senors Valverde, Landa and Quintana cooking up a right mess in their bid to de-rail Sky/Ineos (team classification spoils aside).
It's far more likely that Dave Brailsford with divide and conquer with his assets, with Thomas perhaps given another chance to win the Giro, and Froome honourably given a pop at a record fifth Tour while Bernal, the real Plan A, sits in the wings should/if/when he falters.
But who knows. Bad stuff happens, as we saw this year with Froome's crash. Indeed, Bernal only rode the Tour because his missed the Giro when breaking his collarbone. On their day, Ineos have the ability to place all three on the podium, but they were far less convincing this year than in the Sky years, and the likes of Poels, Kwiatkowski and Moscon would have to raise their game, provided they're still around to lend a hand.
Will Pinot or Alaphilippe ever win the Tour for France?
But there remain glaring doubts as to whether the Frenchman is capable of such an exploit – particularly in the light of his continued mental fragility and given the sudden rise of Bernal.
Pinot's muscular injury and emotional withdrawal in Stage 19 meant we never got to see him go head-to-head with the eventual winner in the Alps. His ardent supporters will point out that Pinot was stronger than Bernal on La Super Planche des Belles Filles and in the Pyrenees, where he won on the Tourmalet.
Were it not for the crosswinds to Albi and his freak injury on Stage 17 to Gap, Pinot would have inherited compatriot Julian Alaphilippe's yellow jersey instead of Bernal, they say.
And this was part of the feel-good factor for the French during the Tour. While being entertained by Alaphilippe's gloriously unexpectedly run in yellow – his 14 days in the maillot jaune even outdoing those two dreamy dual stints by Thomas Voeckler – the home fans were consoled by the thought that, once Alaphilippe cracked, Pinot would pick up the pieces.
It was destiny; the two riders seemed in some way inextricably linked from their pre-Bastille Day bond on the road to Saint-Etienne.
But it was also sentimental tosh. A welcome change of fresh air in a race that has often been stale these past years - but tosh, nonetheless.
For if you're relying on Pinot coming good at the end of a Grand Tour then you're in cloud cuckoo land. Here is a rider who has DNF'ed three of his past four Tours, completed only 50% of his 12 Grand Tours to date.
In the meantime, Ineos were clearly riding the race as if it were, you know, three weeks long, not merely a fortnight. Bernal was always likely to get stronger as the race got older and entered the high-altitude playing ground in which we all knew he would excel. Leadership issues meant both Bernal and Thomas were riding with the shackles on; you could say, in hindsight, that it was a stroke of genius to shield the young Colombian from the stresses of yellow so early in the race, that Alaphilippe's yellow run suited him to a tee.
Pinot was like the football team leading the league at Christmas: worthy of praise, but still hardly ready to be crowned champions.
"What have I done to deserve this," Pinot cried to Marc Madiot on the afternoon of his withdrawal. He was understandably down, quite rightfully broken. But as long as he keeps thinking he's a victim of some kind of conspiracy to stop him winning the Tour, then he won't, in the words of his boss, "get there" – there being the top step of the podium in Paris.
As for Alaphilippe, even he will have been surprised by his performances. It was a shame to see him drop from the podium, but fifth place exceeded all expectations. And truth be told, he could well have already fallen to fifth in Stage 19 had hail and landslides not stopped the stage reaching Tignes.
Asked if he will prioritise GC at the Tour next year, Alaphilippe said that he's more focused on winning the Tour of Flanders. And that probably says it all.
The long wait continues – and shows no sign of letting up.
Were Jumbo-Visma the best team?
Well, Movistar won a record sixth team classification prize but watching some of their tactics confounded at times – with Landa and Valverde often chasing down Quintana, then both Spaniards attacking each other at Val Thorens.
Jumbo-Visma, on the other hand, seemed united while performing across multiple goals. The first stage win and yellow jersey through Mike Teunissen when Dylan Groenewegen crashed; subsequent wins for Groenewegen and Wout Van Aert and in the TTT; a career first podium for Steven Kruijswijk thanks to some indefatigable work from Laurens de Plus and George Bennett in the mountains.
It was the Dutch team more than any else who seemed to have a stranglehold on the race – and did so with those four wins. And yet it was Ineos who came away with the ultimate prize despite zero individual scalps.
But the impending arrival of Tom Dumoulin from Sunweb, plus the return of Primoz Roglic, will make Jumbo-Visma a force to be reckoned with next year. They will have to compromise in some departments, but they are fast becoming the most rounded team on the WorldTour.
Bora-Hansgrohe succeeded in fighting two fronts with Peter Sagan winning a seventh green jersey and Emanuel Buchmann finishing fourth on GC; Mitchelton-Scott put their GC worried behind with wins for Daryl Impey, Simon Yates (twice) and Matteo Trentin; Lotto Soudal also made it four with a Caleb Ewan hat-trick and Thomas De Gendt's stunning solo, as well as Tim Wellens' long stint in polka dots.
And Deceuninck-QuickStep deserve praise for leading the race for so long with a team not set up for defending a yellow jersey, while Elia Viviani added a sprint win to Alaphilippe's brace.
Elsewhere, Bahrain Merida picked up wins through Nibali and Teuns while Groupama-FDJ put on a superb display of teamwork the day Pinot triumphed, with David Gaudu particularly strong. But Jumbo-Visma remain the best equipped team to take the battle to Ineos next year.
Were Dimension-Data the worst?
While Ineos were one of 14 teams who didn't pick up a stage win, they at least took two jerseys in Bernal's yellow and white, plus Thomas's runner-up spot on GC. Movistar frustrated and Astana came away empty handed following Jakub Fuglsang's withdrawal.
Of all the big budget teams, UAE Team Emirates and Trek were the most disappointing, with Dan Martin and Fabio Aru faltering for the former, and Richie Porte failing to get into the top ten and doing so à la Zubeldia. Trek, at least, enjoyed Giulio Ciccone's two days in yellow.
CCC were regularly in breaks but excited about as much as Katusha-Alpecin, while pro-continental wildcards Cofidis, Wanty-Gobert, Arkea-Samsic and Total-Direct Energie. The latter will struggle to get another invite after leaving it until Stage 16 to get their first top-10 finish. Arkea, meanwhile, may be given a reprieve by a certain Colombian – more on which later.
But Dimension Data perhaps disappointed the most – especially in the light of Mark Cavendish's non-selection. Blimey, the Manxman must have been in terrible condition if he was overlooked in this motley crew. Breakaway specialist Steve Cummings didn't get in any breaks while Michael Valgren continued his season of invisibility. Poor all round.
What next for Movistar's three-pronged attack?
Two of them – Valverde and Quintana – are down to ride the Vuelta. But then the it looks like the failed experiment will be wound up. Sixth, eighth and ninth on GC delivered the team classification, but it's telling that Movistar's best results in Grand Tours these past years have come from the outgoing Richard Carapaz, who finished fourth in the 2018 Giro and won it this May.
With Quintana set to join Arkea-Samsic (quite possibly in some kind of merger with Katusha-Alpecin) and Landa on his way to Bahrain Merida, it remains to be seen who will be attacked by the veteran world champion Valverde, who has signed on for another two years. There's talk of Enric Mas coming from QuickStep, which makes sense. Either way, the days of Movistar spreading their options more thinly than Valverde's hair seem to be over.
Does Ewan's rise mark the end for Cavendish and Greipel?
In a word, yes. There's nothing to suggest that Cavendish can add to his tally of 30 Tour stage wins, while it would be very unlikely to see Greipel again on the Tour, considering his only top 10 finish in sprints came on the final stage in Paris (where he was sixth).
Caleb Ewan, meanwhile, took to his maiden Tour like a duck to water and, after a few false starts, went on to win three times in the second half of the race to become the Tour's dominant sprinter. He seemed faster than his rivals and his lead-out was largely very solid.
Just 25, the Australian has multiple wins at all three Grand Tours. He's not just the future but the present – and Messrs Cavendish and Greipel are neither.
Did Bardet's polka dot win make a mockery of the KoM?
It did, rather. And even French sports daily L'Equipe have been critical of Bardet – and not simply for his errant choice of polka dot shorts on Sunday.
After all, Bardet won the KoM competition having led the race over just the one single pass (see video below), whereas Tim Wellens, the long-time leader over the three weeks, ended up third despite going over 12 summits in pole position.
But here's the thing: we wouldn't be having this conversation had the weather not cut short those two final stages in the Alps. Had Bernal gone on to win in Tignes he would have added 10 points to his tally, putting him above Bardet by two points with a stage remaining. And then 15 points were also wiped out with the cancellation of the Cormet de Roselend and Cote de Longefoy climbs in Stage 20.
And had Bernal be crowned king of the mountains as well as the yellow and white jersey, we'd all be saying that the polka dot jersey had a welcome winner.
As it was, Bardet becoming the default climbing champion with the lowest winning points total since the new system was introduced made him the most underwhelming polka dot jersey since Anthony Charteau. Another polka-dot shake-up is needed, perhaps one judged on time, or with more points available for the final and decisive climbs of key stages.
Could Kruijswijk or Buchmann have done more?
Both riders have been criticised for the apparent passive way they went about their quest for a podium position – something which is both unfair and untrue.
It was Buchmann who put in the attacks on the Tourmalet which distanced Thomas in the Pyrenees, and Kruijswijk whose acceleration finally saw Alaphilippe's yellow elastic snap on the Iseran.
Both riders had good reason to ride conservatively – youngster Buchmann to secure a career breakthrough GC performance in the Tour, and veteran Kruijswijk to finally finish on a Grand Tour podium after years of consistency but occasional misfortune.
Add to that the fact that both men rode for teams with dual aspirations – with Bora and Jumbo invariably targeting stage wins, sprints and green jersey points – and their leading GC riders performed admirably. They deserve to be praised – not lambasted because they failed to light up the race in the same way that Alaphilippe did.
If the Frenchman's post-race affirmation that he would "prefer to win two stages, wear yellow on the 14th July and win the super-combatif prize than end up third doing nothing all the Tour" was perhaps not an intentional dig at Kruijswijk, then it was still reductive and harsh.
Was this Christian Prudhomme's most beautiful Tour?
The race director described this year's race as "three extraordinary and unforgettable weeks" while claiming it was "the most beautiful Tour" he had worked on since taking over the rains in 2007.
Is he right? Well, it's his opinion, so of course he is – even if, to many neutrals, the 2011 Tour (when Voeckler wore yellow for 10 days before Andy Schleck took over on Alpe d'Huez ahead of Cadel Evans' 11th hour raid) gave the 2019 edition a run for its money.
Deep into the second week of the 106th edition, some were even touting it as the best since that famous 1989 Tour when Greg LeMond beat Laurant Fignon by eight seconds.
But how good was it? The French subplot aside, it wasn't the most exhilarating race, and all the early promise was ultimately undone by two anticlimactic days in the Alps where the adverse weather really put a damper on things.
What's more, the GC battle – even if perfectly poised right till the end – did not ebb and flow like it did in '89. We didn't see the maillot jaune trade hands as two or three riders traded blows, rose and fell. Had Stage 19 gone the distance and Pinot not been cruelly ruled out through injury, it could have been a very different story. But as things panned out, this was a solid four-star race with definite room for improvement.