With just one day to go until the 2019 Tour de France is set on its way from Brussels, Belgium, Cyclingnews brings you our 10 riders to watch at this year's race.
Picking just 10 riders on what is cycling's biggest stage, with all 176 riders champing at the bit and hoping to make a difference over the next three weeks, was never going to be easy, and our 'honourable mentions' list is truly too long to mention all the deserving riders, with this being the Tour de France n' all.
But this is, remember, '10 riders to watch' rather than our prediction of the top 10 overall in Paris, and so we've included Deceuninck-QuickStep's Elia Viviani – arguably the world's fastest sprinter right now – and exciting youngster Wout van Aert, who's making his Tour debut, and who will be extremely interesting to monitor.
Look beyond this list, however, to Astana's Jakob Fuglsang, who's been arguably the best of the GC contenders so far this year, and to Mitchelton-Scott's Yates brothers, and Adam Yates, in particular. And to Michael Woods – EF Education First's Canadian climber – who could eclipse his more experienced teammates in what is his first Tour, and could even find himself in a leadership role if Rigoberto Urán and Tejay van Garderen fail to fire.
As we say, there are simply too many riders to mention, but here are just 10 of them that should provide a good story or two over the coming weeks.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ)
Can a Frenchman finally win the Tour for the first time since Bernard Hinault in 1985? The French media have certainly developed a 'now or never' approach, and something just feels 'right' about the development of both Thibaut Pinot and AG2R La Mondiale's Romain Bardet (see below), who are surely coming into their prime at the ages of 29 and 28, respectively.
There's a lot to like about Pinot and his mainly French build-up to this year's Tour: from his stage and overall win at Haut Var in February, to another stage win and the overall title at the Tour de l'Ain in May, and then fifth place overall at last month's Critérium du Dauphiné.
Add in the fact that neither Tom Dumoulin or four-time winner Chris Froome will be at the Tour, that defending champion Geraint Thomas hasn't had the most stellar of springs, and that the Welshman's wunderkind Team Ineos teammate Egan Bernal still lacks experience at this level, that Jakob Fuglsang's best Tour placing of seventh was back in 2013, that in recent seasons Movistar leader Nairo Quintana has been unable to match his consistent podium places of a few years ago… suddenly our French colleagues really could be right about their 'now or never' take on things.
Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos)
"If I end up as a one-hit wonder, it's still a pretty good hit to have," Thomas only semi-joked this week in the build-up to the start of this year's Tour. The Welshman positively crushed his opposition at last year's race – and promptly celebrated his achievement for the rest of the year. And which of us wouldn't have?
It did, however, mean that Thomas came into this season packing a few extra pounds, and, although he had a bit of a slow start, he came good at the Tour de Romandie in May, finishing third overall after strong riding on the climbs, but then crashed out mid-way through the Tour de Suisse – luckily without putting his Tour defence under threat.
It may come down this year to just how much he wants it. Bradley Wiggins appeared more than happy to have won one Tour de France; Thomas could well be in the same boat. However, four-time Tour winner and Team Ineos teammate Chris Froome's absence, due to a crash, may well serve to galvanise the ambitions of Thomas, who now finds himself as the eight-man squad's experienced elder statesman.
While he was was the underdog at last year's race but still came good, Thomas is top dog on the Ineos Tour team this year. But will younger teammate and fast-rising star Egan Bernal obey?
Nairo Quintana (Movistar)
In her assessment of Nairo Quintana as part of our countdown this week, Philippa York writes that the Colombian's spark has gone missing. And while the 29-year-old hasn't been firing on all cylinders since his second place at the 2017 Giro d'Italia, and his third place at the Tour de France and overall victory at the Vuelta a España the year before that, the French media's 'now or never' assessment of Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot's chances of overall victory this year could easily also apply to Quintana in the absence of a number of star names – if he can pull himself together and grab the opportunity with both hands.
Last year, Quintana was stymied by Movistar's infamous 'three-pronged attack' on the race, when he had to share leadership with both Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde on a squad of just eight riders. It didn't work out, and Quintana just about finished in the top 10 – although he did also take a stage win in the Pyrenees – while Landa finished a slightly more credible seventh and Valverde faded to 14th.
This season, Quintana still has Landa to go up against – the two riders will share leadership, while Movistar management is going with the old 'the road will decide' approach – but Valverde, at least, has fallen by the wayside, and although the current road race world champion will still be at the Tour, the 39-year-old will assume a 'road captain' role.
Quintana has had a steady build-up, with second overall at Paris-Nice in March, fourth at the Volta a Catalunya later that month, and then ninth overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June, after a prolonged period of training back home in Colombia. While he doesn't really want to have to go up against Landa, Quintana's biggest enemy could be his own confidence.
Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale)
Romain Bardet has stuck with his tried and tested build-up to the Tour again this year, with an altitude camp in Spain's Sierra Nevada mountains ahead of riding to 10th place overall at the Critérium du Dauphiné in June – although that was his lowest-placed finish at the French stage race in the six years he's been racing there.
Now, at 28, another year wiser and possibly stronger, Bardet has to put that experience into trying to better his runner's-up position at the 2016 Tour, and his third place the following year. Both those years were won by Chris Froome; Froome's not at this year's race, but there's no escaping the fact that Bardet faded to sixth overall last year, just when he should have been steeping things up a notch.
But the AG2R leader has had a solid 2019 so far, starting with second overall at the Tour du Haut Var in February behind France's other big Tour hope, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ). Fifth at Paris-Nice was followed by a crash on the final stage of the Volta a Catalunya, and although the damage was minimal, his Ardennes Classics campaign was underwhelming.
But following the Dauphiné came a strong performance at new one-day race the Mont Ventoux Dénivelé Challenge, where Bardet found himself with only Cofidis rider Jesus Herrada as the summit of 'The Giant of Provence' approached. The Frenchman tried multiple times to shake his rival before the Spanish rider accelerated with a couple of hundred metres to go and rode away from Bardet for the win.
It perhaps left people thinking that if Bardet can't beat a rider from a Pro Continental team in a head-to-head battle on the Ventoux, how can he expect to win the Tour de France? But maybe that's what Bardet wants you to think… Besides, who wouldn't trade a win at a new one-day race – albeit on one of cycling's most iconic climbs – for overall victory at the Tour? Time will tell if Bardet's build-up has been the right one.
Egan Bernal (Team Ineos)
Rapidly developing into many people's favourite for this year's Tour is 22-year-old Team Ineos climber Egan Bernal. In reality, he's surely still a little under-done to be considered the likely winner in Paris in three weeks' time, but a podium finish is certainly within his capabilities.
Bernal was all set to lead Team Ineos – at once a test of his leadership potential – at this year's Giro d'Italia before a training crash the week before the start of the race left him nursing a broken collar bone. Instead, Bernal was handed a spot at the Tour, and, were it not for teammate Chris Froome's own crash while warming up for the time trial at the Critérium du Dauphiné, Ineos would have been left with the luxury problem of fielding three riders with GC aspirations in Froome, Bernal and Geraint Thomas.
As it is, Bernal and Thomas could yet lock horns in the mountains if things are close, but Bernal probably really needs at least this race – his second Tour after riding for Thomas and Froome last year – to show whether he potentially has what it takes to be a leader on the very biggest stage. His recent overall win at the Tour de Suisse, however, suggests that the Colombian is in flying form.
Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Elia Viviani has arguably developed into the world's fastest sprinter in the past couple of years. But let's first address that sprinting elephant in the room; the Italian has only ridden the Tour de France once before – in 2014, when he was with Cannondale, when he took a best-placed stage finish of 17th, although to be fair, he was riding in the service of then teammate Peter Sagan.
After moving to Team Sky in 2015 for three seasons, Viviani racked up sprint-stage wins at the Giro d'Italia and the Tour of Britain, but it was only really after joining Quick-Step in 2018 that a true sprint-star was born. Four stage wins at last year's Giro, plus another three at the Vuelta a España, singled him out as something special. And yet he didn't get to ride the Tour, with Quick-Step instead awarding main-sprinter status to Fernando Gaviria – who promptly won the opening stage and took the race's first yellow jersey.
Gaviria left for pastures new at UAE Team Emirates for 2019, and won't take part in this year's Tour as he continues to struggle with a knee injury. The path is therefore clear for Viviani to take what will surely again be a number of stage victories. It won't be easy – he will be up against the likes of Alexander Kristoff, Caleb Ewan, Dylan Groenewegan and Peter Sagan – but the 30-year-old Italian is surely the man most likely on paper.
Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo)
All eyes will be on poor Richie Porte when stage 9 – from Saint-Etienne to Brioude on Sunday, July 14 – comes around. The Australian crashed out of the Tour on stage 9 in both 2017 and 2018, and, providing he can get that monkey off his back, and can stay safe and healthy for the rest of the race, Porte certainly has what it takes to considerably better his fifth place of 2016 and take a spot on the podium in Paris.
The 34-year-old has been plagued by illness in 2019, but hopes that now – fit and ready ahead of the start of the Tour this Saturday – that he can give his Trek-Segafredo team, which he joined this season, what they're hoping for, with a squad built exclusively around his aspirations.
"I must admit that I've not had the season that I wanted to have so far, but I go into the Tour with far less pressure than in the last few years. That's no bad thing. The form is pretty good and I just need to stay healthy," Porte told the press this week.
"It hasn't been a slow start to the season because I wanted it that way," he added. "My race programme had to change a few times and I kept getting sick, but it's nice to turn up at the Tour not running on fumes and trying to eke out the last bit of form that I've had, which has happened in the last few years.
"I'm under no pressure from the team, other than to take it one day at a time," he said.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep)
Arguably cycling's most exciting rider right now, Julian Alaphilippe poses a very real danger to Peter Sagan's popularity. And while Sagan's victory-rate has dropped of late, the Frenchman's become a prolific winner – which has had both fans and the media drooling. Alaphilippe, then, is the complete package, and already has 10 wins to his name this season, including Strade Bianche, Milan-San Remo and Flèche Wallonne.
Winning the Tour's polka-dot jersey again – as Alaphilippe did last year, along with two stage victories – is a very real possibility, and the 27-year-old can expect his race to be as closely followed as GC-contender compatriots Thibaut Pinot and Romain Bardet's. Alaphilippe may end up signing the most autographs – or appearing in the most selfies – too.
Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma)
Both Wout van Aert and his Dutch counterpart Mathieu van der Poel (Corendon-Circus) have become essential viewing this season, lighting up the spring Classics on the road with their youthful exuberance off the back of their cyclo-cross seasons. That two such talented riders have emerged from cycling's 'cross scene is not being taken for granted, with Van Aert being rewarded with promotion to WorldTour outfit Jumbo-Visma for 2019.
The 24-year-old rode his first Critérium du Dauphiné in June, and came away with two stage wins and the points jersey. That he was named in Jumbo-Visma's squad for the Tour was no real surprise given his obvious talent, but his inexperience on the road at the highest level should really mean that he'll use this year's race as a learning experience, riding in the service of team sprinter Dylan Groenewegen and GC contender Steven Kruijswijk.
And yet everyone will be expecting something from him, and he may give us more indications of the kind of rider he's yet to develop into on the road over the next three weeks. Whatever he does, Van Aert can expect to be watched with interest by both fans and the media at this year's Tour.
Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe)
You didn't really think that he wasn't going to feature on this list, did you? True, Peter Sagan has had a 'quieter' season in 2019 than perhaps he and his fans are used to, with only three wins in the bank, courtesy of Sagan's stage victories at the Tour Down Under, the Tour of California and the Tour de Suisse.
As a prolific Classics winner, Sagan perhaps doesn't need the Tour de France to showcase his considerable talent, either, but La Grande Boucle has been a happy hunting ground for the Slovakian over the years, with 11 stage wins and, perhaps more importantly, six green points jerseys in seven participations. His run of trying to take six in a row was only halted when he was booted off the race in 2017 for having been deemed to have caused a bunch-sprint crash that ended Mark Cavendish's Tour, with the British sprinter sustaining a broken shoulder in the incident.
Last year's sixth green jersey for Sagan didn't come easy, either, as he had to battle through to the finish in Paris after a major crash in the final week almost sent him home. And that's perhaps what's so watchable about Peter Sagan at the Tour de France: that he's always ready to try so hard – that he's willing to be active even on mountain stages to poach points towards the green jersey on the flatter sections prior to the climbs.
When it comes to taking a seventh points jersey, Sagan is going to be hard to bet against.
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