The first week of the 2019 Tour de France was a very good one for the host country, with 27-year-old Julian Alaphilippe, of the French Deceuninck-Quick Step team, becoming the first Frenchman to wear the race leader’s yellow jersey since 2014.
His bold breakaway on a short climb near the end of the third stage sent French TV commentators into raptures and had them musing that this may be the year that a French rider – any French rider – could be wearing the yellow jersey on the Champs-Élysées when the race ends, on July 28. A reminder: no French rider has won the Tour since Bernard Hinault, in 1985 – 34 years ago.
Following Chris Froome’s horrifying training crash, which left him unable to compete, this year’s race is unusually open – even though last year’s winner, Geraint Thomas of Froome’s Team Ineos, must be considered a slight favourite to repeat the deed. But his team’s second-place finish in the team time trial, on Sunday’s second stage, has raised questions about whether it will dominate the race as it has six in the past seven years when it was known as Team Sky.
Surprisingly, Thomas has not looked sharp so far and appears to be trying to find his legs in the early stages. Thursday’s race, with its six difficult climbs and a mountaintop finish, will reveal much about his fitness and about who is likely to shine in the latter part of the Tour, when the riders tackle the Pyrenees and the Alps where the Tour de France is decided.
The team time trial was one of the many surprises the first week of the Tour has produced. The Dutch Jumbo-Visma team beat Ineos by 20 seconds, which is quite a lot for a 27.6-km race. Jumbo-Visma therefore claimed its second surprising stage win, after Mike Teunissen won the sprint to the finish of the first stage, nipping perennial green jersey winner Peter Sagan by a whisker.
If a French rider will end the home country’s long victory drought, it is likely to be Thibaut Pinot, of the Groupama-FDJ team. The 29-year-old has had an excellent spring, winning the Tour de ‘Ain and the Tour du Haut Var. He skipped the Giro d’Italia and appeared to have been pointing to the Tour from the start of the year. He finished third in the 2014 Tour but has not finished the race since then, skipping it last year.
If Pinot should win, it would represent a wonderful novelty for a race that has been, for most of this century, far too predictable. Lance Armstrong and Team Sky riders have won 12 of the previous 18 races, all in much the same fashion so that the Tour often seemed like a very long and exhausting victory parade, rather than a competition. This year’s race has begun with surprises, and if we are lucky it will continue to surprise us to the end.
However, based on Wednesday’s fifth stage, there will be no surprising green jersey winner. The ease with which Slovakia’s Peter Sagan outdistanced his rivals in the sprint to the finish suggests that the 29-year-old Bora-Hansgrohe rider is in his usual excellent form and, barring injury or accident, is likely to become the first rider to win seven Tour de France points classification titles. Unless, of course, the race has another surprise in store for us.