Luke Rowe starts his fifth Tour de France in Brussels on Sunday in his usual domestique's role for Team Ineos. The question is, who – between defending champion Geraint Thomas and young pretender Egan Bernal – will he be working for come the final week of the race?
It's the same question that everyone's asking, from fans, to the media, to rival teams. And Rowe has the answer: the road will decide. But the 29-year-old Welshman is in the privileged position of being an inside man – and knows both of his GC-contender teammates' qualities and personalities well.
"The Tour de Suisse was a disappointment, and Geraint was right next to me when he went down," Rowe told reporters on Friday, referring to Thomas' crash that ended the stage race early for him in June, but with no lasting damage. "It would have been a better scenario to have got those race days in the legs, but 'G' is one of the hardest 'trainers' I know.
"He's the guy who always does an extra hour, an extra effort, and I think he tried to replicate what would have gone on at the Tour de Suisse at home through training, and I think he's in great shape."
Childhood friends growing up in Wales, and racing together as youngsters, last year's Tour victory was a dream come true for both riders, Rowe said, who's more than happy and comfortable in his role as a helper.
"It's no secret that after the Tour we had some good fun – we relaxed," Rowe says of the celebrating he and Thomas did after last summer's win. "But since November/December, you've seen Geraint step back into it, and he was the same old G. It's been a slower, steadier build-up this year, and maybe he wasn't so good at, say, Tirreno-Adriatico in the early season, but that was intentional.
"He was told to be ready for the Tour, and what happens before the Tour doesn't matter, and I think that's what he's done," he said. "So I think he's in as good a shape as ever, and mentally – a massive factor at the Tour, on the bike and off the bike – he's ready, in my opinion. But let's see what the road brings.
"I'd say that he's still the favourite," continued Rowe. "If I had to put a tenner [£10] on one rider, I'd put it on him. Last year you would have sat here and said that Chris Froome was the clear favourite, but this year is a more open race. The gaps are a lot smaller, and there are a lot of top, top guys who've not done the Giro d'Italia who are just concentrating on this race, and so I think it will be a close Tour de France.
"But I think he's ready," Rowe said of Thomas. "I know he's ready."
Where the Tour de Suisse wasn't a disappointment for Team Ineos was in Bernal's overall victory, with the 22-year-old stepping up to the plate in Thomas' absence.
"Suisse was just another example of where Egan rode above his age," said Rowe. "Every time that he attacked, he got the gap straight away and never got caught, and then he went into the last stage and rode conservatively, not taking any risks – but you could see that he had the legs to attack. To be in that position and not attack because it's the safest option to do, that shows experience – that shows maturity.
"Egan's had all this success, but he's still got his feet firmly on the floor," he added. "When he won the Tour of California last year – his first-ever WorldTour victory – he won this magnum of red wine, and he knocked on my door in the evening, and said, 'Luke, this is for you. I won it, but I want you to have it, just to say thanks.'
"At the time he was just 21, and it shows that he's grounded and respectful, and appreciates what we're doing. He's a grounded, nice kid," Rowe said – ready to let the road decide how this year's Tour takes shape for him and his team.
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