NICE — The dominant force at the Tour de France for most of the last decade, the Ineos team of defending champion Egan Bernal is seeing its supremacy challenged, and this year’s race could well be the one marking a major shift of power in cycling.
Since Bradley Wiggins’ triumph at the marquee event back in 2012, the British outfit has never been under such a threat as it is on the starting line in the Riviera city of Nice, where the three-week race is set to start Saturday under the cloud of COVID-19.
The pandemic has forced the Tour to move to the end of the summer holidays and the few races held prior to the event strongly suggest that Dutch team Jumbo-Visma is ready to replace Ineos as the top Grand Tour squad.
But a changing of the guard this summer is far from guaranteed. The uncertainty brought on by the virus and the steady rise of cases in France in recent weeks mean there is a real risk the race could be stopped short if the situation deteriorates further or if the peloton is badly hit by positive results.
“We don’t know, nobody knows, if we’re going to reach Paris,” Ineos manager Dave Brailsford said on Friday. “To be fair, if it comes to a point where it’s detrimental to the riders and teams, people need to take that on board as well. We need to be responsible and reasonable in our approach.”
Under the COVID-19 exclusion rules issued by cycling’s governing body, teams could be excluded from the race if two of their riders test positive in the space of seven days.
“It’s a first miracle that we are able to start this race, but we want a second miracle to happen, which is the Tour de France to arrive in Paris,” UCI president David Lappartient said. “The goal is really to reach Paris.”
Led by the 2019 Spanish Vuelta winner Primoz Roglic and 2018 Tour de France runner-up Tom Dumoulin, Jumbo-Visma arrived at the Tour with a roster capable of controlling the race in the mountains, an essential element that was a hallmark of the Ineos teams in previous years.
Roglic, a former ski jumper from Slovenia, has all the qualities required to win this mountainous edition of the Tour that will take the peloton over France’s five mountain ranges. A climber with great downhill abilities, he would be the overwhelming favorite if not for his crash at the Criterium du Dauphine while leading the race earlier this month.
Roglic says he has fully recovered and insists Dumoulin is also in great shape.
“The thing is I’m here and I’m at the start. That’s really good news and it’s nice to be here. I’m also ready. We start on Saturday and I’ll just try to do my best and we’ll see how it goes,” he said. “Looking to Tom, I think he’s made big steps and he’s ready to be at his best here. It’s a lot nicer now to have such a strong guy in the team and we’ll try and do the best that we can.”
When organizers unveiled the route for the 2020 edition in October, there was little doubt the 3,484-kilometre (2,165-mile) trek would be an ideal setting for Bernal and his experienced teammates including previous winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
But the pair of former champions has been axed from the Ineos team following under-par performances at preparation races after the season resumed in early August. There is however a silver lining to Froome and Thomas’ exclusion. They have made way for the addition of Giro champion Richard Carapaz alongside a group of excellent so-called “domestiques.”
And in their absence, the 23-year Bernal won’t have to assert his authority because he will be the team’s sole leader.
“He’s is such a young, exciting, talent,” said Brailsford. “He has won the race already, he’s obviously ambitious but he has got no pressure, it’s a kind of nice position to be in.”
Meanwhile, French hopes of producing a homegrown Tour winner for the first time in 35 years will rest with Thibaut Pinot, who finished runner-up at the Dauphine this month. The Frenchman was forced to withdraw from the Tour last year within touching distance of Paris with a left leg injury after bringing excitement to the race in the Pyrenees, where he managed to drop Bernal on climbs and posted a prestigious stage win at the top of Tourmalet mountain.
This year’s route, with nearly 30 climbs over the Alps, the Pyrenees, the Massif Central, the Jura and the Vosges, and only one uphill time-trial, is perfectly suited to Pinot’s ambition of becoming the first French winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
“I’m stronger in my head, I have less pressure,” Pinot said. “Hopefully it cannot be worse than last year. It has hardened me, I feel more confident and stronger this year.”
His sports director at Groupama-FDJ, Philippe Mauduit, agreed.
“He is really back to his best,” Mauduit said.
Whether that’s good enough will be evident in three weeks’ time.