Title-holder Geraint Thomas, teammate Egan Bernal and Denmark's Jakob Fuglsang are among the favorites in a wide open Tour de France in the absence of four-time winner Chris Froome. France's hopes are on Romain Bardet to give them a first title since 1985.
The 106th Tour de France starts on Saturday without a clear favorite, and the host nation hoping to finally win the prestigious race for the first time in 34 years. With four-time champion Chris Froome out after a recent horror crash, last year's runner-up Tom Dumoulin also not present, and the form of title holder Geraint Thomas uncertain, the 2019 Tour could be the big chance for Frenchman Romain Bardet. The 28-year-old AG2R La Mondiale rider was second overall in 2016 and third in 2017, and even skipped the recent national championships to prepare in the best possible way for the Tour. "I have to take advantage of each day that brings me closer to the Tour de France," Bardet said, with team boss Vincent Lavenu saying this "... will allow him to be in the best condition at the start line in Brussels. That's where the AG2R La Mondiale team of course has every intention to do its best to shine for French cycling," Lavenu said.
The last French rider to finish the Tour in the coveted yellow jersey was Bernard Hinault in 1985, and a Frenchman topping this year's final podium would be a dream for the hosts, given that this edition celebrates the 100th anniversary of the yellow jersey. "The yellow jersey is one of the biggest symbols in the history of sport," race director Christian Prudhomme said.
Another anniversary is the reason why the Tour starts in Brussels: honoring Belgian great Eddy Merckx who won his first Tour 50 years ago and is one of only four riders who have won the race five times.
Froome had hoped to be the fifth in this elite group but that ended in a crash three weeks ago which will sideline him for months. That is bad news for him but his Ineos team at least has two other major contenders in Thomas and Colombian Egan Bernal. The team formerly named Sky has won six of the last seven titles. While Bernal has impressed by winning the recent Tour de Suisse, the Welshman Thomas is a bit of an unknown quantity. His Tour de Suisse ended early in a crash, and he has not won all year in only 26 race days. But the 33-year-old has history in mind as he wants to become the first since Spanish great Miguel Indurain in 1992 to repeat his maiden Tour win in the following year.
Bernal is meanwhile bidding to become the first Colombian to win the Tour but that honor could also go to Nairo Quintana who with a Tour title would complete a rare Grand Tour treble after his Giro d'Italia triumph in 2014 and Spanish Vuelta success in 2016. Astana captain Jakob Fuglsang is also rated highly, owing to his superb form which saw him win the Tour of Andalucia, the Criterium de Dauphine and Liege-Bastogne-Liege.
Riders face 21 stages over 3,480 kilometers until the July 28 finale on Paris' Champs-Elysees, including one team and one individual time trial, and seven stages categorized as mountain stages. They include a short 117.5 km stage to the top of the mythical Tourmalet, and the highest peak, the 2,770 m Col de l'Iseran, crossed on the third-last day.
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