Tour de France 2019: Yellow jersey guide – Egan Bernal leads open field
The last of our Blazin' Saddles pre-race features weighs up the credentials for each of the contenders for the yellow jersey in what is shaping up to be the most open Tour de France in years. Egan Bernal has emerged as the pre-race favourite in many people's eyes, but perhaps the experience of fellow Colombian Nairo Quintana will shine through…
Chris Froome's absence means just two former champions take to the start: a defending champion short of race days and fitness, and the 2014 winner who could be overcooked following his efforts in May's Giro d'Italia.
First up, though, a wild prediction: thanks to a demanding and exciting route plus the open field, the 2019 Tour de France will be the best edition in recent memory, far better than anything delivered in the past decade. Heck, it could even rival the famous 1989 Tour for drama…
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) devant Egan Bernal (Sky) au sommet du Col de Turini, à l'arrivée de la 7e étape de Paris-Nice
Image credit: Getty Images
The in-form riders
No-one can deny that Colombian Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) enters his second Tour with the weight of expectation on his shoulders. Prior to Froome being sidelined, the debate was whether the Kenyan-born Brit would lead Ineos over the defending champion; but already Ineos have said that Bernal enters the race on a level footing with Thomas.
With victories in Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse, and an ability to shine in the high mountains, it's no surprise that 22-year-old Bernal is touted to become the youngest post-War winner of the Tour. But has he yet proven himself over three weeks? Time will tell.
The same could be said for Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang (Astana). No, not the stuff about being young and inexperienced, the questioning his staying power. After all, the 34-year-old has never finished higher than seventh in a Grand Tour. And yet, Fuglsang enters the race off the back of victories in the Criterium du Dauphine and Liege-Bastogne-Liege. He's in the form of his life and climbing better than anyone.
Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is also currently running on full, climbing well and starring in races (albeit small ones such as the Tour de l'Ain). But question marks remain over his ability to perform in the heat and to deal with the pressures of his home Tour, which he skipped for the past two years having failed to finish twice since his breakthrough third place in 2014.
The experienced Tour veterans
Riding his ninth Tour, Fuglsang would be in this category were it not for his stellar form.
Top of the list in his absence is Nairo Quintana (Movistar) who enters his sixth edition off the back of a top 10 in the Dauphine and second place in Paris-Nice. The Colombian, 29, finished a comparatively low 12th and 10th in his previous two attempts but will be bolstered by Froome's absence. He'll be aiming for nothing less than a podium finish.
Geraint Thomas, Egan Bernal - Tour de France 2018 in Paris
Image credit: Getty Images
Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) defends his crown with only 26 race days in the bank after crashing out of the Tour de Suisse. His best performance this year was third in Romandie and there's certainly talk that his victory last July has made the 33-year-old complacent. Thomas's assertion that "If I end up a one-hit wonder, it's a pretty good hit to have" is a great soundbite but hardly inspires confidence.
Colombia's Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) crashed out last year and enters with far fewer race days in his legs than former team-mate Thomas – just 19. He's far from the rider who finished runner-up in 2017, but then again, that incarnation was a far cry from the rider who twice was bridesmaid in the Giro.
Winner in 2014, Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) last won a Grand Tour in 2016 with the Giro, having since finished three times on the podium. The veteran Italian crashed out last year on Alpe d'Huez and has not ridden a competitive race since finishing behind Richard Carapaz in the Giro. Time will tell how well he reacts to riding a fourth consecutive Grand Tour.
Image credit: Eurosport
Dutchmen Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) have 12 Tours between them but will have different priorities in July. After coming fifth in the Giro, Mollema will ride in support of Richie Porte but in the knowledge that such a role often results in an upgrade, while Kruijswijk will hope to build on his strong top-five last year.
Could this be the year a Frenchman finally ends the hoodoo, 34 years after Bernard Hinault's win? Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale) has had a quiet, winless season, but will relish this mountainous route, even if he was dropped by Jesus Herrada on Mont Ventoux recently.
It's time for Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) to emerge from the shadows of his twin brother. Still seeking a maiden Grand Tour stage win, Adam has been in solid if unspectacular form as he builds to the Tour, picking up wins all season. He looked sharp in the Dauphine before retiring with illness.
Having been ruled out of the Giro through injury, Wilco Kelderman (Team Sunweb) finds himself entering the Tour as leader following the knee injury of compatriot Tom Dumoulin. The 28-year-old has no form to speak of and will need to ride stealthily into contention if he wants to reverse the fortunes of himself and his struggling team. So, the scene is set.
Adam Yates produces stunning finish to win stage three
Having failed to deliver on so many occasions, even Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) will understand the media's tendency to write him off. Things are no different this year, with Porte failing to do anything of note following his annual victory parade on Willunga Hill in January. Perhaps it will suit the 34-year-old that no-one expects him to complete the Tour, let alone be in the GC mix.
Another rider synonymous with Tour underachievement, Tejay Van Garderen (EF Education First) seems to have found his feet in his new American team. Finishing runner-up in the Dauphine will have the American dreaming of a strong showing in a race in which he has twice finished fifth.
Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) et Tejay Van Garderen (EF Education-First) encadrent Jakob Fuglsang (Astana) sur le podium du Dauphiné 2019
Image credit: Getty Images
Russia's Ilnur Zakarin (Katusha-Alpecin) won a stage in the Giro before cracking so it's hard to know what to expect from the 29-year-old. The last time Zakarin rode the Tour after the Giro, in 2016, he finished 25th.
With Kruijswick the designated leader at Jumbo-Visma, George Bennett will hope to build on last year's promising eighth place in the Giro. The New Zealander's Tour record is poor, and the continuing side-stitch issue a concern. But he's lean and could surprise.
Team Ineos duo Wout Poels and Michal Kwiatkowski will enter the race firmly as back-up to stars Bernal and Thomas, but who knows what will happen on the roads of France. Dutchman Poels looked in good nick in the Dauphine, where he won Stage 7; Poland's Kwiatkowski, less so. An able domestique-de-luxe, the 29-year-old has done nothing to suggest he can be a GC contender here since his 11th place in 2013.
Wout Poels snatches victory on saturated stage seven
While Quintana's passivity may frustrate, the same cannot be said for his Movistar team-mates Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde, who will once again form two corners of the infamous trident which failed so miserably last July.
Landa ended up supporting Richard Carapaz in the Giro as he rode to fourth place under the radar, while Valverde was ruled out ahead of the race following his Ardennes injuries. The veteran world (and now Spanish) champion is leaner than ever, weighing a ridiculous 58.5kg as he hopes to prove those who believe he can't climb at high altitude wrong. Expect fireworks.
Frenchman Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic) left Sunweb and joined a second-tier team so that he could continue attacking in the mountains and hunt stages rather than focus on GC. The newly crowned French champion will hope his win will be the launchpad for a return to his 2017 form.
Five summit finishes and all those high peaks will suit Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) to a tee. The Irishman will relish the lack of time trials and will no doubt go on the offensive in a bid to break the top five for the first time.
After disappointing in the Giro, Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) will ride primarily for his brother Adam, but by not focusing on GC, perhaps his attacking instincts will return – especially if Adam suffers a setback.
The unknown quantities
Touted as the heir to Alberto Contador, Spain's Enric Mas (Deceuninck-QuickStep) podiumed in the Vuelta last year and will be given a free role in his maiden Tour. Also making his debut in France, Michael Woods (EF Education First) is part of an intriguing line-up for the American team.
Astana's focus will be on Fuglsang for GC but Spanish duo Gorka Izagirre and Pello Bilbao will provide backup should the Dane falter. Bilbao won a brace of stages in the Giro but has never ridden the Tour before, while, without a clear role, Izagirre enters with a huge question mark above his head.
Finally, Fabio Aru (UAE Team Emirates) returns to the Tour after two years frying other fish. He was fifth last time round and enjoyed a couple of days in yellow, but has suffered a chronic lack of form and a struggle with surgery following an artery illness since. Could he remind the world of his GC credentials? It's probably too early, but you never know.
Valverde - 'I want to do the best job I can to support our leaders at the Tour de France'
The ghost riders
Austria's Patrick Konrad and Germany's Emanuel Buchmann will spearhead Bora-Hansgrohe's GC bid and both riders are capable of riding "a la Zubeldia" to high finishes – the former coming seventh in the 2018 Giro and the latter twice a top 15 finisher in Grand Tours.
Although a classics man by trade, Belgium's Tiesj Benoot (Lotto Soudal) slipped into the top 20 two years ago and judging by his Dauphine form (fourth), the 25-year-old may hope to do the same.
It's been three years since Roman Kreuziger (Dimension Data) cracked the Tour top 10 but the 33-year-old Czech will have no pressure on his shoulders as he starts his 17th Grand Tour. Usually riding for others, Kreuziger's best result came in 2013 when he finished fifth, one place behind team-mate Contador.
Another rider who enters in good form is Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida) following his runner-up spot behind Bernal in Switzerland. With Nibali primed to be the team's protected rider, the Australian may hope to ghost his way into contention. His track record is poor, mind: two DNFs sandwich his 101st place in 2015, and this year's race only offers 27 solo TT kilometres.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar) in the Tour of Romandie 2016
Image credit: Getty Images
The verdict: Colombian glory… with Quintana
The heart says Egan Bernal but the head is going for Nairo Quintana to finally get the Tour monkey off his back in the absence of old rival Froome. While Bernal is clearly firing on more cylinders going into the race, Quintana is a grizzled veteran who has won three-week races and, at 29, needs to win a maiden Tour soon or risk never doing so.
It's a bold prediction – and one that will elicit much ridicule – but sometimes you have to put your neck on the line…