The loss of Chris Froome from Team Ineos’ 2019 Tour de France squad leaves an undeniable hole in the British team’s line-up, but the final eight-rider squad that will depart for Brussels in just over a fortnight’s time will still have a number of options for the overall title, with defending champion Geraint Thomas and 22-year-old Egan Bernal. In fact, despite Froome’s vacancy, the most significant question facing the selectors at present will be over how much leadership responsibility they place on Bernal. The inquiry into who fills Froome’s slot is somewhat secondary.
To answer the latter question, there’s no direct replacement for Froome. In fact, even pooling together all the existing Tour de France winners in the current peloton – Thomas and Vincenzo Nibali – would still only fill half of Froome’s Tour win quota.
And while Froome’s horrific injuries from the Critérium du Dauphiné rule him out not only of the Tour but also the rest of the season, this isn’t a carbon copy of the situation in which Team Ineos found themselves on the eve of the Giro d’Italia. In that instance, Bernal broke his collarbone days out from the event, and the team were unable to put forward a genuine GC replacement at the time. They headed into the Giro with an incredibly young and inexperienced team – Christian Knees, aside – before Pavel Sivakov rescued them with a fine performance.
The Froome-shaped void at the Tour should be diluted by Thomas and Bernal, and while the rival teams will take morale from Froome’s bad luck and see it as a prime opportunity to throw Thomas off his perch, Ineos are still the team to beat.
Team insiders have suggested that seven of the eight spots for the Tour de France have already been penciled in, with a further five to seven riders in with varying shouts of taking the last place.
Team Ineos are unlike several of their rivals, such as Jumbo-Visma, UAE Team Emirates and Mitchelton-Scott, in that they don’t have a pure sprinter within their ranks. That may sound limiting in terms of options, but it also refines focus and means that whoever they choose to fill that last spot will be an all-rounder who can climb as well as perform on the flat.
What’s relatively clear is that Thomas and Bernal will be protected riders, while Wout Poels, Gianni Moscon, Michal Kwiatkowski, Luke Rowe and Dylan Van Baarle will provide cover. The only new face from last year’s team is set to be Van Baarle, but the Dutchman has been groomed for the Tour de France since the start of the year, when Tim Kerrison began to coach the 27-year-old. His recent stage win in the mountains at the Dauphiné will have only bolstered his chances of making the team, and his versatility in time trials, on the flat and now on the climbs will be a key component. This might be his first Tour de France in Team Sky/Ineos colours, but he has three Tours under his belt from his time at Cannondale. He’s not as green as some might expect.
Although Moscon has been short of his best form this year and has a poor reputation at the Tour owing to his disqualification last year, he remains a respected rider within his own ranks. He and Rowe will be charged with keeping Bernal and Thomas safe through the first week, alongside Van Baarle.
Kwiatkowski, who has played pivotal roles for the team in the past two editions – most notably 2017 – will once again sacrifice his own ambitions for the collective. At the Dauphiné, he admitted to Cyclingnews that he was below his best after a long break since Ardennes. However, his entire focus is built on supporting the squad’s GC ambitions in July. As with so many of the Ineos riders, his versatility will be key, and he will be an important link in the chain between the flatland specialists and the purer climbers, such as Poels and Bernal.
On paper, Poels would be good enough to lead at least half of the WorldTour teams in a Grand Tour but his record as super domestique is nothing short of phenomenal. He has been part of winning Grand Tour teams in his past five starts, and one has to wind back the clock to the 2014 Vuelta a España to find the last time he started a Grand Tour and didn’t support a rider to victory.
The final spot
With the majority of the team sewn up, the fight is on for the final spot on the eight-rider roster. A number of names have been mentioned, including Kenny Elissonde, Ian Stannard, Vasil Kiryienka, Salvatore Puccio, David de la Cruz and Jonathan Castroviejo. Even Pavel Sivakov has a very outside chance.
All of those riders would make it into most rival Tour squads, but the most likely candidates for the final spot are Kiryienka and Castroviejo.
Elissonde has never started a Tour, for any team, and it would take a huge uplift in form for him to truly be considered. He was impressive in the first mountain stage at the Tour de Suisse, and although this year’s Tour might be one of the most mountainous in recent times, Elissonde is too much of a specialist. He is too weak in the team time trial, and too light on the flats, with simply more riders on the team that tick more boxes.
De la Cruz is a capable rider with a top 10 in the Vuelta, but he has endured a stop-start season due to injury. A DNF at the Tour of California in May and missing out on a Dauphiné and Suisse rides effectively killed his Tour chances. Ian Stannard is a rider who has suffered somewhat since the drop in Grand Tour teams from nine to eight at the start of last year. Once a Tour de France regular for Team Sky, he has been usurped by Rowe and has not started a Tour since 2016.
The 32-year-old hasn’t even started a three-week race since 2017, and his vulnerability in the high mountains counts against him. Puccio has never ridden a Tour de France, and he and Sivakov sit at the bottom of the long list.
Castroviejo rode the Tour last year and has settled into life at Team Ineos almost seamlessly. He was spared the Giro and even sits inside the top 10 at the Tour Suisse at the time of writing this. A strong showing there in the support of Bernal should ensure he gets the nod over Kiryienka. The Belarus rider has only missed one Tour since joining the team, and while he as recovered from his heart problems, the team are likely to favour Castroviejo at this point.
As we’ve seen in recent weeks, first with Froome’s crash and then with Thomas’ own fall, everything can change in the blink of an eye.