AN UNUSUAL TOUR

On an ordinary year, predicting the winner of the Tour de France is usually fairly easy. Barring illness or crashes, the favourite normally takes the spoils. This year, the pandemic has thrown a curveball on the status quo. With riders on zero racing days, atypical training regimes, a topsy-turvy racing calendar, the form and endurance level of each rider is unknown even to them. But it makes the French Grand Tour a more exciting affair (for the general classification race, that is) on the wake of an extraordinary but shortened 2019 edition.



Egan Bernal (INEOS) is still the clear favourite. The Colombian rider has been clocking long and hard rides at home in South America. Team INEOS seem to have opted (so it looks) for a triumvirate leadership, with the Colombian, Froome and Thomas. Froome has now signed for another team so the question will be whether it would be awkward for Bernal's leadership, whether Froome will be able to help or even go for his own glory. In a reduced team of 8, it could be a problem, like we saw so clearly at Movistar when Quintana, Valverde and Landa clashed in their quest for glory, making life difficult for the domestiques as well.


Chris Froome (INEOS) has been unhappy with his team's decision of a shared leadership as he is keen to chase his equalling record 5th Tour de France title. David Brailsford, INEOS's chief, decided that given his return from injury and his age (Froome is 35), they couldn't put all their hopes on his shoulders and decided not to renew his contract. This allowed Froome to sign for Israel Start-Up Nation with a lengthy and lavish contract. Now it is to be seen whether INEOS will take the risk of uncertainty in the team or if Froome will do enough to reassure them of compliance. His form at the beginning of the year was not good and he is coming back from horrific injuries after a crash at the Dauphiné last year. He has been training hard and he is very committed but whether his body will follow his head is to be seen.


Primož Roglič (Team Jumbo-Visma) has shown good form at the Slovenian National Championships, his first race of the year, winning the TT and coming second in the road race. He finished 2019 with a string of victories, including the Vuelta. He could be the man to challenge Bernal, but like at INEOS, Team Jumbo-Visma are having a three-man leadership with Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk and that could throw a spanner in the works if egos get in the way of team glory.


Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk (Team Jumbo-Visma) have had zero racing in 2020. Tom comes back from injury and from changing teams. Also, this year's Tour only has one TT (his speciality) and it is uphill, so it suits him less than other years'. Kruijswijk podiumed in 3rd place in last year's Tour and is more likely to be plan B if it all fails with Roglič and if he can find the necessary racing form in time.


Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is unlikely to have used a turbo trainer to its full potential during the lockdown, but his passion and grit always allow him to find extra gears when needed. He was potentially on his way to glory at last year's Tour when problems on his knee forced him to retire on stage 19. His form is a mystery for now and he is also a rider who needs everything to fall into place mentally in order to succeed. His experience of the race could be an advantage in a year where most contenders have not raced enough.


Emanuel Buchmann (BORA - hansgrohe) has shown good form at the start of 2020, before lockdown, and he was close to the podium last year. He is dangerous and very good at disguising himself in the lead group. Whether he has the edge to actually win the race, is to be seen. His team has restarted the season on a winning streak, which can only be a good thing for morale by the time the Tour starts.


Tadej Pogačar (UAE Team Emirates) is the new kid on the block in terms of Grand Tours. He was dangerous during last year's Vuelta, finishing in third place, just a handful of seconds behind Valverde. This year he beat his fellow countryman Roglič at the road race of the Slovenian National Championships. He is committed and very confident in his abilities. This Tour will suit him well, including the uphill TT.


Nairo Quintana (Arkéa Samsic) looks like a rejuvenated rider after leaving Movistar. His last years at the Spanish team seem to have taken a toll on the Colombian rider's ability to dictate full support from staff and teammates. Now in a French team and with a different racing calendar, he looked like he was enjoying his riding and won a few races already (3 stages and 2 GCs) at the beginning of the year. Whether his teammates will be able to help on a 3-week race is to be seen, but Nairo has shown in the past that he can go alone and be the guy to beat.


Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) was a pleasant surprise during the 2019 Tour and very nearly pulled it off. However, he's now a marked man from the start and the list of GC contenders is even bigger this year. He showed he could climb with the best and outdo most in tactical terms. He's also very handy on the intermediate stages, where some of the other GC hopefuls sometimes lose time. He only really showed weakness on the climbs over the 2,000 metres of altitude. This year's course suits him better as there is only one climb the Col de la Loz (2,304) he needs to really worry about, all the other peaks are just shy of 2 km in altitude.


Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) is a veteran of the Tour but he has never achieved better than 5th and that was in 2016. True, during most of those early Tours he was a domestique, but even after changing teams and acquiring sole leadership, he has ended up either injured or out of puff for the third week. His teammate Bauke Mollema has fared better in Grand Tours and he is experiencing a bit of a revival, taking the 2019's Il Lombardia. If the team works well together they could spring some surprises in GC.


Mikel Landa (Bahrain - McLaren) has changed teams once more. The Spanish rider is on a perpetual search for the perfect setup. He has massive talent and has every possibility in his legs to win a Grand Tour but he is in a constant battle with sustained performance and leadership skills. Hopefully, being the sole leader will help him concentrate on the task ahead, without the distractions of team politics.


Miguel Ángel López (Astana) cannot hide behind his tender age anymore, and the 26-year-old has struggled to keep his head cool during a Grand Tour. Tactically he has been a bit naïve and if he wants to seriously challenge for the title, he has to show more restraint and although he needs to keep going with his attacks, he has to be savvier in order to know where and when.


Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) has a tough relationship with the Tour. He is frustrated by his performances and feels the pressure of the French nation on his shoulders. But given the nature of the French rider, if the opportunity arose, he would be a great contender. Further complications have been added to his quest by seemingly leaving his team at the end of the season.


Geraint Thomas (INEOS) will help Bernal just he did (eventually) last year and he has Froome to contend with, potentially. But the Briton is always ready to cash in on events along the way and he could become a contender if something should befall the Colombian teammate. A former winner of the Tour, the Welshman has the experience and the patience to carry on the task, although his legs don't always carry him for three weeks.


Rigoberto Uran and Sergio Higuita (EF Pro Cycling) have been training hard and especially the latter has already shown good form this year in earlier races. They could help each other achieve at the very least the podium. Having spent lockdown in Colombia, the two riders should have enough climbing on their legs to re-start the racing season with panache.


Alejandro Valverde (Movistar Team) is the sole leader in his team, having lost all the major players from past Grand Tours to different teams. At 40, he's going to find it almost impossible to win the race outright. But crazier things have happened in cycling. His saving grace could also be his massive experience, especially when in a season like this one, the runup to the Tour has been completely turned upside down.

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