Scott Mercier: Wrapping up the exciting and unpredictable 2019 Tour de France
Special to The Aspen Times
The 2019 Tour de France was the most unpredictable and exciting since Greg LeMond’s victory over Laurent Fignon 30 years ago. The final podium, with Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas and Steven Kruijswijk was not a surprise, but how they got there certainly was. Six riders were within two minutes of each other with just three days to race. Interestingly, no rider on the final podium won an individual stage during the race.
Three themes emerged during this year’s Tour that could have a significant impact on racing for years to come: The success of road racers with cyclocross backgrounds, a new generation of riders and the re-emergence of French riders.
Surprise Stage 1 victor, 26-year-old Dutchman Mike Teunissen, was a perfect example of the success of former cyclocross racers having road success. He surprised the sprinters to take the win and the yellow jersey. Teunissen was expected to be the lead-out man for teammate Dylan Groenewegen, but when Groenewegen crashed within the last mile, chaos ensued. Teunissen kept his position near the front of the race and pulled off the biggest win of his young career. In fact, five stages were won by former cyclocross worlds medalists with Wout van Aert, Julian Alaphilippe and Peter Sagan all winning stages.
It’s premature to say there was a definitive passing of the baton to the younger generation as both grizzled veterans and fresh neophytes represented themselves well. Egan Bernal, the 22-year-old Colombian, won the race for Team Ineos, while his 33-year-old teammate, Geraint Thomas, was second. Bernal is the youngest Tour winner in 100 years, and the first Colombian to win. Thomas was surprisingly resilient in this year’s Tour. He crashed three times during the race, yet he still managed to finish second. This result showed just how tough he is.
The younger generation has announced its presence loudly, but hasn’t put the old bulls to pasture just yet. If Froome can recover from his injury, Team Ineos will have an interesting leadership quandary as it will line up with three former Tour champions.
Frenchmen Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot became the darlings of France during the Tour. Both riders won stages and were placed in first and fifth, respectively, with just three stages to race. Only the final two mountain stages and an unfortunate crash denied France its first potential winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Alaphilippe, in particular, captured the hearts and minds of not just the French, but of cycling fans everywhere who wax poetic for the opportunistic style of racing that has been smothered by the relentless monotony of the Sky/Ineos formula. Alaphilippe races with instinct and heart and put a scare into the contenders for the overall win. He showed why he is the No. 1-ranked rider in the world with a daring attack to win Stage 3 and take the yellow jersey on Bastille Day. He was expected to lose the jersey either on the summit finish of Stage 6 or definitely the individual time trial on Stage 13. Instead, he gained time on both stages and won the time trial for his second stage victory of the race.
Alaphilippe only began to show cracks when the race went above 2,000 meters in altitude but fought with grit and panache to keep the jersey. It wasn’t until Bernal’s solo attack on the truncated Stage 19 that Team Ineos was able to wrestle the jersey off his shoulders. Alaphilippe held the yellow jersey for 14 days and ultimately finished fifth.
Meanwhile, Pinot was steadily gaining time in the high mountains and won Stage 14 to move back into contention. However, he crashed on Stage 17 into Gap and tore a muscle in his left thigh. He bravely continued and finished the stage, but he was forced to abandon the next day.
It’ll be interesting to see how the results of the two Frenchmen play into the design of next year’s race. Alaphilippe has indicated that he will not target the overall victory, while Pinot insists that he will return and intends to try to win it.
I fully expect the Tour organizers to include fewer high mountain stages and more technical and punchy climbs to give Alaphilippe a chance to compete. I’ve often felt the design of the race should be more suited to the best bike riders, rather than just the best stage racers. Regardless, the 2019 Tour was a pleasure to watch and the 2020 race promises even more excitement.
Scott Mercier represented Team USA at the 1992 Olympic Games and had a five-year professional career with Saturn Cycling and The U.S. Postal Services teams. He currently works as a private wealth adviser in Aspen and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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