Cycling's new generation ready to deliver at Tour de France
Australian cyclist Caleb Ewan celebrates while crossing the finish line to win the eighth stage of the Giro d'Italia cycling race, on May 18, 2019. (Alessandro Di Meo / ANSA via AP)
BRUSSELS -- No matter who wins, this year's Tour de France will see a changing of the guard.
And if the names of Wout Van Aert, Kasper Asgreen, Enric Mas or Caleb Ewan don't ring a bell for now, they might soon be on everybody's lips.
In the absence of many stalwart riders who have stamped their mark on cycling's marquee event in recent years, new faces will emerge this summer.
There is a long list of top riders missing the Tour, which starts on Saturday from Brussels with a 194.5 kilometre stage through Flanders and back to the Belgian capital, and that number includes:
- Four-time champion Chris Froome, who is missing out for the first time since 2011.
- 2018 runner-up Tom Dumoulin.
- Primoz Roglic, a fourth-place finisher last year.
- Former world champion Philippe Gilbert.
- Ace sprinters Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and Fernando Gaviria.
The generational change is likely to be the most visible in the fight for the race leader's yellow jersey, as 22-year-old Egan Bernal seems ready to take over from his leader at team Ineos, defending champion Geraint Thomas.
In the wake of an already successful season during which he won the Paris-Nice and Tour de Suisse weeklong races, Bernal has been elevated to a co-leader status after Froome, who also rides for Ineos, was ruled out because of an horrific crash last month.
Despite his lack of experience -- he will start his second Grand Tour -- Bernal is showing an impressive maturity for his young age.
"I think you have a physical age and a mental age, but when you're ready, you're ready," Ineos team boss Dave Brailsford said on Friday. "He's ready."
Many former Tour winners including Eddy Merckx and Alberto Contador have picked Bernal as their favourite to win a race that features several grueling mountainous stages this year. They expect the diminutive Colombian climber to grab the spotlight when the Tour reaches the high-altitude summits in the last 10 days of racing.
Before that, there will be many opportunities for the 33 riders making their first Tour appearance to show off their skills and challenge the supremacy of their elders -- starting Saturday.
The opening stage features two short climbs usually taken during the one-day classic Ronde van Vlaanderen and a stretch of cobblestones and also passes through Merckx's childhood home. The day's main difficulties come too early to have a real impact on the final result, though, and the stage is likely to end in a bunch sprint that could award the first yellow jersey to a Tour debutant.
"It is a stage that I can win and I know the team and I really want to win the first stage," said Ewan, Australia's new sprint sensation.
The 24-year-old Ewan, who rides for Belgian outfit Lotto-Soudal, is among an exciting group of competitors that will try to derail three-time world champion Peter Sagan's ambition to claim a record seventh green jersey, which is awarded to the best sprinter.
A colourful character with a spectacular style of racing, Sagan has been the fastest man in the Tour peloton in recent years. Since 2012, he has failed to win the green jersey just once, when he was disqualified following a crash with Cavendish two years ago.
But Sagan has been struggling with form this season, boosting the hopes of younger rivals including Ewan, who already posted stage wins at the Giro and Spanish Vuelta.
"It's a massive motivation for me that it's in Brussels," Ewan said. "Obviously it's never going to start in Australia so the next best thing would be to start in the home country of your team, and it's pretty special my first stage is this one. If there was any stage I would pick to win this year, it would be this one, because it means the yellow jersey too."
Among others riders ready to surge to the fore, Van Aert is certainly the most promising. A three-time cyclo-cross world champion, the 24-year-old from Belgium is riding his first Grand Tour this summer after claiming two stage wins -- a sprint and a time trial -- at the prestigious Criterium du Dauphine in June.
His versatility and physical skills make him dangerous on all grounds, although his lack of experience should limit his ambitions to a second-fiddle role in support of Jumbo-Visma team leader Dylan Groenewegen. The 26-year-old Dutch rider has a good chance of being covered in yellow after Saturday's opening stage. He claimed two stage wins last year and has 10 victories to his name in 2019.
The Deceuninck-Quick-Step team is also bringing a pair of 24-year-old newcomers to the Tour -- Mas and Asgreen. In his first full professional season, Asgreen won the time trial at the Danish championships and finished runner-up at the Ronde van Vlaanderen. He will ride in a domestique role for Mas, the runner-up at last year's Vuelta.