Thomas faces epic Tour test; French hopes ride on Bardet - GulfToday

Thomas faces epic Tour test; French hopes ride on Bardet

Cycling

AG2r La Mondiale rider Romain Bardet of France during the teams presentation at the Grand Place in Brussels on Thursday. Reuters

Besides mountains galore, Welsh rider Geraint Thomas is up against a solid cast of opponents, even within Ineos his own team, when the three-week Tour de France pedals off on the cobbled streets of Brussels on Saturday.

The race organisers chose the Belgian capital, which is home of all-time great Eddy Merckx — winner of 5 Tours — to celebrate a centenary of the iconic race leader’s yellow jersey.

Thursday’s city-centre parade of the 22 eight-man teams was cheered all the way along the route with fans mobbing riders at their team buses.

Ineos co-leaders Thomas and Egan Bernal were given CIA-style running security as other star riders good naturedly signed scrapbooks and posed for selfies. Four-time winner Chris Froome misses out after a bone-crunching fall last month that blew the field wide open. The team chief of Spanish team Movistar, Eusebio Unzue, has described the remaining peloton as “a flock of sheep without a shepherd”.

“Without Chris Froome the Tour is not the same race,” Tour chief Christian Prudhomme admitted, with the British team having won six of the last seven editions since Bradley Wiggins clinched their first.

In the battle for the yellow jersey, Froome’s long-time deputy and current champion Thomas takes centre stage, the popular Welshman attacking a mountain-packed Tour with Ineos teammate Bernal, the 22-year-old Colombian revelation, as his main rival.

Thomas fell and banged his head during the Tour de Suisse on June 18. He escaped serious injury but it hampered his training for the big race in France. His multi-talented teammate Bernal, who then won with panache in Switzerland, will become the youngest post-war Tour de France winner and the first ever Colombian to win if he outstrips Thomas in the manner which the Welshman himself unexpectedly did to Froome last season.

But there are as many candidates for victory as there are mountains.

Danish late bloomer Jakob Fuglsang, Britain’s Adam Yates and his twin Simon, Froome’s long-suffering second fiddle Nairo Quintana, and Italian master tactician and former winner Vincenzo ‘the Shark’ Nibali are all licking their lips in anticipation.

“I decided to win this or die,” said Fuglsang after winning a recent classic. “At 34, I finally grew up.”

Meanwhile, so great are expectations placed on French riders every time the Tour de France comes around they could be excused for feeling as though they are pedaling up an Alpine road carrying pannier bags full of lead.

For comparison think of the Brazil soccer team at a home World Cup, Andy Murray, pre-hip surgery, and his annual Wimbledon quest or a Ferrari driver racing for the chequered flag at Monza.

So spare a thought for Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot when they mount their bicycles in Brussels on Saturday to begin a 3,480km route, including 30 mountain climbs, hoping to arrive in Paris on July 28 in a yellow jersey.

No Frenchman has done that since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and every passing year deepens the desperation of a Tour-mad nation.

In recent years a British team, of all things, have become the pantomime villains for the French fans who line roads across the country in hope, with Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome (four times) and then Geraint Thomas all winning for Team Sky.

But as the 106th edition looms, there is a genuine belief, not just blind loyalty, that this could be the year. “Now or never” is the narrative of the local media.

Bardet, AG2R La Mondiale’s leader, has been France’s best bet since finishing sixth in 2014 but the closest he has come was second in 2016, four minutes behind winner Froome.

With Froome out this year, Thomas struggling for form and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) also missing, it feels like a golden opportunity for Bardet on a climber-friendly route that should play to his strengths.

“There is always lots of pressure. As a Frenchman, there is this big expectation for you to perform because of this long wait since Hinault’s last win,” Bardet, who also finished third in 2017 and sixth last year, said on Thursday.

“I always try my best with this expectation and pressure but, honestly, I think it is a good thing for me and a good thing for the French public that we have this expectation.”

Bardet has earmarked a brutal final week in the Alps, when the Col de Vars, Col d’Izoard, Col du Galibier, Col de l’Iseran and Val Thorens await, as his opportunity to write history.

Agencies