Barring another major disaster for Team Ineos, Geraint Thomas will line-up in Brussels in July as defending champion of the Tour de France. That’s a saving grace for the race – Grand Tours that don’t feature last year’s winner often feel like they’re lacking something.
Even so, the loss of Chris Froome to injury could be a real hammer blow, whether you like him or not. Many don’t – his gangly, head down style behind a line of super-domestiques just isn’t what a bike race should look like to their minds. Froome and his team have dominated the Grand Tours in the last eight years though, and without him this Tour will definitely feel different.
Thomas won last year as a plucky underdog, a man in the shadow of Froome that unexpectedly dominated the race. But despite that, Thomas won’t be considered a dead cert this year, just like everyone else.
Tom Dumoulin has won the Giro, but last year’s runner-up heads to July with a knee injury picked up in Italy in May on a time trial-light route that won’t do him too many favours.
Nairo Quintana looks half the rider he was several years ago when he was Froome’s biggest challenger, while Richie Porte remains an unknown having struggled to regularly make it to the finish thanks to crashes after branching out from Team Sky in 2016.
The French contingent of Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot still struggle to hold things together through an entire three week race, while Brit Adam Yates hasn’t yet been able to build on his fourth place from three years ago.
The point is, Froome, a multiple Tour winner, can provide a focal point to the race that none of these riders will – even if he isn’t in yellow.
Sit at home and cheer for someone to beat him, or for him to crush everyone else – either way, you’re still getting your money’s worth (Eurosport is pretty cheap anyway). It’s a narrative that runs through so many sports, those who want the giant toppled and those who want them to dominate for as long as they can.
Without that – particularly in cycling in recent years – there can be a certain hesitance. Who will step up? Who’s going to try the extraordinary? There’s more expectation when you haven’t got a four-time winner to take the pressure. Get dropped after attacking Chris Froome, no problem, get dropped by those you’re being compared to and things don’t start to look as good.
There is however, the chance the race could now be more open. Throw caution to the wind, this is your chance, it’s now or never. A chance that a new star is born.
This year’s Giro d’Italia suffered from no-one willing to take many risks. A cagey battle of looking at each other decided on a few moments of well-timed attacking.
It’s a stacked field of more established names at the Tour (and certainly a better route for mountain attacks), but it’ll require someone to stand up and take hold of the race in the absence of Froome.
Thomas could well be that man, but the Sky, now Ineos way will be to continue to control, with the Welshman showing last year he preferred to wait until the final moments of mountain finishes to try and take time, rather than exhilarating long-range attacks.
Movistar always have the propensity to try something, but their three-way leadership of Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde along with Quintana looked more of a problem than a perk last year, with no-one really getting to grips with the race. At least Ineos have avoided a similar problem.
Nonetheless, no-one would have wanted to see Froome out this way. At 34, one of the finest Grand Tour riders of a generation could be running out of chances to join the five Tour club. Only one rider in the history of the race has been older than that when they won it.
The Tour will always be the Tour, no matter the riders, but without Froome this one will certainly be changed, for better or worse.