The maillot jaune, the most coveted jersey in cycling, has reached its 100th birthday this year, and the momentous anniversary of its glorious inception coincides with the 50th year since Eddy Merckx’s maiden Tour de France victory, and a Grand Départ in his native Brussels. When the Tour goes big, it really goes big.
Furthermore, there’s always something appreciably more special about the first yellow jersey of each Tour. After 12 months of expectation and build-up, the most iconic garment a cyclist can ever covet is donned by a rider as he stands on the podium to receive the warm applause. It’s a moment when the Tour really feels like it has begun and, although the real winner of the race is crowned three weeks later, the maillot jaune at that moment never gleams so brightly.
The route for Saturday’s stage 1 will see the riders leave Brussels and head towards Ninove, where the Tour of Flanders has held a long association. The first ‘race’ comes with the inclusion of the Muur van Geraardsbergen and the Bosberg – two of Flanders’ most quintessential bergs. Although they come too soon into the race to determine a significant outcome, they do provide the landscape for the first jersey to be decided in this year’s race, with King of the Mountains points available. These climbs, especially when placed so early in the race profile, will ensure that the race to be in the break will be highly competitive.
That said, the most likely outcome on Saturday afternoon is a mass bunch sprint, with the best sprinters in the world going head-to-head on the streets of Brussels to determine both the first stage winner of this year’s race but also the first yellow jersey of the 2019 Tour de France.
The final five kilometres are flat until a final gradual incline to the line in the last 1,000m, but there are four almost 90-degree turns in the finale that could prove problematic in terms of lead-out, positioning, and momentum.
Viviani, Groenewegen, Ewan
There are a number of blockbuster contenders, with Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Dylan Greonegwen (Jumbo-Visma), and Caleb Ewan (Lotto Soudal) the standout favourites. The trio arrive in Belgium with fully fledged lead-out trains and various incentives to win the opening 194.5km stage.
For Viviani, this is a chance to find redemption after a disaster of a Giro d’Italia. Ewan is making his Tour de France debut and would love nothing more than to pull on the yellow jersey and provide further vindication over his decision to leave Mitchelton Scott, while Groenewegen - arguably the best sprinter in the world right now - will be hoping to become the first Dutchman to take the yellow jersey since Erik Bruekink won the opening stage of the 1989 Tour.
"I hope to win the first stage and take the yellow jersey," Groenewegen told Cyclingnews on Thursday evening. I’ll try and we have a very good team. I’m in very good shape, so we’ll see.
"But there is Viviani and Ewan, who are very strong. I’ve seen the stage on the video. It’s a good sprint for me but I’ll ride it on Friday. It’s hard to ride it in training because it’s busy but I’ll look at it and then we’ll make a plan. Last year I didn’t start the Tour so well but won on stage 7. This year I will have good legs at the beginning and I have a really strong team behind me."
Ewan will be hoping to pick up where his Giro form ended. The Australian collected two stage wins in Italy before leaving the race in order to save his legs for the Tour de France. With no GC distractions at Lotto, he has arguably the most devoted squad a sprinter could hope for in this year’s race.
When Cyclingnews spoke to him face-to-face on Thursday evening he had not yet ridden the finish of stage 1 but the slight incline towards the line will certainly suit his skill-set.
"I just drove down the finishing straight. I think it looks quite good for me. It’s one kilometer uphill and it should suit me, actually. You’ll have to time it right because if you go to early it will slow you down if you start to fade. It’s a gentle incline. I’ve not looked at the wind but it’s quite covered there with the trees. The stage doesn’t seem like it will be too windy at the moment but it’s Belgium and it can get quite windy here. That could be an issue."
As Ewan noted, timing will be critical both for the lead-out trains and their sprinters. This is the first competitive outing a number of these squads will have had for weeks as single cohesive units and, with the pressure high and all the GC teams converging at the front, the finish will be chaotic and certainly dangerous.
The winner could well be the rider who makes the least number of mistakes and holds their nerve when the yellow jersey is in sight.
"That doesn’t change things," Ewan said of yellow.
"Even if there wasn’t a yellow jersey up for grabs every sprinter wants to start the Tour well. All the sprinters have pressure on them to do well, so it’s just an extra bonus if you win the stage that you can take the jersey. I feel good and relaxed. I’m in good enough form."
A stage win on the first day of racing will be a defining moment. It will ease pressure on an entire squad and we have seen so many times that momentum at the Tour counts for so much. One win can quickly turn to two; two quickly becomes three.
Viviani’s last appearance at the Tour came five years ago when he was a different rider - less accomplished and tasked with leading out Peter Sagan. Time has been kind to the Italian, who arrives in Belgium with a team capable of putting him in the perfect position. In Michael Morkov and Max Richeze, he has two of the best lead-out men in the business.
"I don’t want to think that stage 1 is my only chance of winning a stage but I know it’s a big chance for me and that I have to put pressure on myself," Viviani said ahead of the race.
"This is perhaps one of the biggest opportunities of my career. It’s all up for grabs, there’s a sprint finish on stage 1 of the Tour de France, there’s a chance of taking yellow, we’re in Belgium and I ride for a super strong Belgian team, too. It’s all there to take. I’ve never pulled on the leader’s jersey in a Grand Tour. I missed the maglia rosa [at the Giro d’Italia] in 2013 by half a wheel when I lost a sprint to Cavendish in Naples.
"I don’t honestly know how I’m going to feel, but I do know it’s nice to be on the big stage, on the podium day after day. I loved that at the Giro and Vuelta last year when I won stages and now I hope it’s time to do it at the Tour de France."
Best of rest: Sagan to Kristoff
Below Viviani, Ewan and Groenewegen are the second batch of sprinters with varying chances of success.
This might have been a slow season for Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), and he may lack the pure speed of some of the pocket-rocket sprinters, but as long as he’s in the race he always has a fighting chance. At his best, he can do things no other rider can match, and his experience of pulling a victory out of nothing will ensure that he cannot be written off.
UAE Team Emirates may lack their preferred choice in Fernando Gaviria, with the Colombian out through injury, but in Alexander Kristoff they have a more than capable understudy. The Norwegian, like Sagan, may lack the finesse of Ewan and Groenewegen, but he has the experience and sprinting nous to make the most of any opportunity that comes his way.
He comes into the Tour with less pressure on his shoulders, too, after recently extending his contract with the team and it will be interesting to see how he links up with Tour debutant Jasper Philipsen, who’ll be his last man.
"I’ve had good form all year but I didn’t feel super in Suisse or the national championships," Kristoff told Cyclingnews.
"Maybe that’s what I needed but I’m focused on Saturday and trying to do my best. If I have a bit of luck and someone makes a mistake then maybe I have a chance for victory. I don’t see myself as the biggest favourite."
And what of Andre Greipel, the elder statesmen of the sprinting fraternity? The German has been below his best this year, with just one victory since joining Arkea-Samsic, but he was as relaxed as ever at the teams’ presentation on Thursday.
"I wouldn’t call it a lead-out train but I’ve got riders helping me for a good position. It’s not easy to try and compete against the top sprinters but it’s good to be back,” he said. “This could be my last Tour with the status of the team, you never know if we’re selected next year. I’m going to try and enjoy it and take it as if it’s my last. If I look at my legs, I think there’s still life in them."
Sonny Colbrelli (Bahrain-Merida), Edvald Boasson Hagen (Dimension Data), Christophe Laporte (Cofidis) and Michael Matthews (Sunweb) should all be in the mix but whoever pulls on yellow this Saturday will go down in history.