British cycling mastermind Dave Brailsford promised his new team sponsor a Tour de France victory ahead of the 2019 race, which embarks on an epic three-week rampage around France from the cobbled streets of a festive Brussels on Saturday.
Brailsford faced the press Friday with his co-leaders, defending champion Geraint Thomas and breakout Colombian star Egan Bernal, in high spirits ahead of what promises to be a mouthwatering, high-altitude showdown.
“It would be remiss of me not to thank Jim Ratcliffe,” Brailsford said of his team’s new sponsor, the British billionaire petro-chemicals magnate.
“This is our first Tour de France as Ineos, and we’d like to pay him back with a win.”
To celebrate a centenary of the iconic race leader’s yellow jersey, organisers chose Belgian capital Brussels, home of all-time great Eddy Merckx, for the opening two stages.
And if Thursday’s rider parade is anything to go by, the bike-mad Belgian public will give it a raucous sendoff 50 years after Merckx clinched the first of his magnificent five Tours.
Saturday’s first of 21 stages is a 194km jaunt around Belgium from Brussels and back, with a bunch sprint expected in front of the royal palace around 5pm local time with sprint specialist Elia Viviani and three-time world champion Peter Sagan the men to watch.
Four-time winner Chris Froome is missing after a horrific fall last month that blew the field wide open.
“Without Chris Froome the Tour is not the same race,” Tour boss Christian Prudhomme admitted, with the British team having won six of the last seven editions before Sky ended their ten-year deal and Ineos took over the outfit.
Bernal, Thomas’ ally and rival
In the battle for the yellow jersey Thomas takes centre stage, the popular Welshman attacking a mountain-packed route with Colombian revelation Bernal as both ally and rival.
Ineos principal Brailsford said his co-captains strategy was part of his wider marginal-gains tactic.
“If they realise that one of them winning is good for both of them, then it increases the chances for both of them. It’s a question of trust.”
Thomas, who fell heavily and banged his head during the Tour de Suisse on June 18, said his lay-off hadn’t hampered his training, but a clear scar around his eyebrow still looked tender at a press conference on Friday.
Bernal will become the youngest post-war Tour de France winner and the first ever Colombian champion if he outstrips Thomas.
“We raced together last season and that worked out quite well,” Thomas said of his 2018 win where Bernal did the donkey work on Thomas’ iconic Alpe d’Huez victory that served as a launchpad to the title.
But there are as many candidates for victory as there are mountains.
“Me and Egan are not rivals,” insisted Thomas on Friday.
“The Yates (brothers Adam and Simon) will be strong, (Jakob) Fuglsang stands out. Jumbo, (Vincenzo) Nibali, Movistar whatever, we’ll just take it as we always do.”
‘Been a while’ for France
France itself, bereft of a Tour de France champion since Bernard Hinault in 1985, has two good contenders in Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot, who both spent their youth shuttling up and down mountains in the Massif Central and the Vosges mountains.
“It’s been a while, but I’ve got that winning feeling,” Pinot told AFP this week.
Another massive loss for British fans is the absence of seasoned sprinter Mark Cavendish, who won 30 stages but has been struck down by the weakening Epstein Bar virus.
Current speed king, Italian champion Viviani, would be many people’s tip to bid for the green sprint jersey.
“I’m only thinking about the first and last stage,” said Viviani, who races for local Belgian outfit Deceuninck-Quick Step.
The 2019 Tour is remarkable for its altitude, climbing over 2000m seven times, with summit finishes in the Pyrenees, the Vosges and the Alps.
It is in the Alps however, at the very end of the Tour, where things will be decided with an unprecedented three consecutive, ultra-mountainous challenges to test any potential champion to the extreme.