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Comment: Why this will be the most unpredictable Tour de France in a decade

19 Jun 2019

Go back seven days and look at how the bookmakers had priced the 2019 Tour de France. You would not have batted an eyelid. Top of the pops was Chris Froome, a four-time yellow jersey winner and seven-time Grand Tour champion who had built his entire season around making history and becoming only the fifth man to ever win five Tour titles.

Second favourite was the defending champion Geraint Thomas who despite having a difficult build-up to his title defence was nonetheless still going into the race wearing the number one on his back, riding as part of the race’s strongest team.

Third favourite was Tom Dumoulin, a man tipped to be a future yellow jersey winner, last year’s runner-up and previous Grand Tour winner who is among both the best time trial specialists and climbers in the world.

The podium from a year before all taking their rightful place as favourites to re-enact their performance from 12 months previous.

Fast forward to now and see how quickly it can all change.

Somewhere in France, that very four-time Tour de France and seven-time Grand Tour champion who was clear favourite finds himself sitting in a hospital bed waiting for his broken bones to heal.

Instead of preparing himself to make history and join the likes of Jaques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Barnard Hinault and Miguel Indurain, Chris Froome is wondering whether he will ever compete at the top level again.

A moment’s lapse in concentration, deciding to blow his nose on a fast and windy descend, taking an unnecessary risk cost him the chance of history.

Then not a week later, the new favourite Thomas joined Froome on the hospital bed, crashing out of the Tour de Suisse.

This year's podium is set to look very different to 2018's

While Thomas's injuries aren’t as severe and his Tour chances are still very much intact, he finds himself in the unique position of having not finished a race since early May and without the race winning form he had just a year ago.

Then there’s Tom Dumoulin. With Team Ineos showing the biggest chink in its Tour de France armour since 2014, it was always expected that Dumoulin would be the first rider to land that killer blow.

The Dutchman is a yellow jersey winner-elect, with most believing it to be a matter of when rather than if he will take a maiden Tour title.

But, right now, he is sitting at home in Maastricht lamenting the fact he won't even be in the reckoning.

A knee injury that forced him out of the Giro d’Italia in week one is still hampering the Dutchman’s ability to ride. He managed to suffer through the first four stages of the Dauphine but eventually bailed out before the big mountains.

What followed was a crisis of confidence as he pulled out of a high altitude training camp as he questioned whether ‘he was ready to do this’.

Now, instead of Dumoulin, the bookmakers are backing a 22-year-old as the most likely winner of cycling’s biggest race beyond the defending champion, Egan Bernal - also of Team Ineos.

A man who has never contested the three weeks of a Grand Tour for victory, a man who has only ridden one Grand Tour, a man who's still young enough to be patronisingly be called a boy.

Dane Jakob Fuglsang has routinely struggled across three weeks of racing

Next up is Jakob Fuglsang, who may have just won the Dauphine and had an all-conquering Spring Classics that saw him win Liege-Bastogne-Liege but has only one Grand Tour top 10 finish in 12 attempts, some six years ago.

Then you have Nairo Quintana. He has two Grand Tour wins and two Tour podiums on his side but he hasn’t looked the rider he once promised to be after bursting onto the scene back in 2012.

These days he looks like a beaten man. Following wheels, waiting for others to make their move rather than taking the race by the scruff of the neck.

Adam Yates would have fancied his chances, especially considering he finished fourth here in 2016, but then he abandoned last week’s Dauphine with an upset stomach despite sitting second overall on the last stage.

Steven Kruijswijk has never troubled the final podium of a Grand Tour, Enric Mas has never even raced the Tour and Richie Porte can seldom even make it to the finish of a three-week race.

Romain Bardet cannot time trial, nor can Thibaut Pinot. Neither can Dan Martin for that matter and as for Alejandro Valverde, he is almost 40-years-old.

Bardet has struggled with form so far this year

Rigoberto Uran finished second at the Tour two years ago but you cannot help think that was a bit of a fluke and his teammate Tejay Van Garderen would have fancied himself in the past but not now.

Each winner of the Tour de France spanning back the best part of a decade went into the race almost flawless.

Geraint Thomas, Chris Froome, Bradley Wiggins, Vincenzo Nibali, Cadel Evans, Alberto Contador, they all had an air of invincibility about them before and then during their road to victory. 

This year could not be more different. Every rider going to the Tour de France next month with the aim of overall victory contains a fatal flaw. An obvious reason why they will not win, why they will fail.

But ultimately, one of them will win and by doing so will provide the biggest surprise winner for the best part of the decade, or at least since the Team Sky/Ineos era began seven years ago.