Cycling’s new generation ready to deliver at Tour de France

Polish rider Michal Kwiatkowski checks his smartphone during a training session of Great Britain's Team Ineos cycling team near Overijse on July 5, 2019, on the eve of the start of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race. - On Saturday, July 6, the 106th edition of the Tour de France will start with a 194.5km stage in the region of Brussels, 100 years after the introduction of the yellow jersey. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)

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 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 kilometer (120.8-mile) 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.

A Citroen 2CV car overpasses British rider Geraint Thomas (frontR) and teammates as they take part in a training session of Great Britain’s Team Ineos cycling team in Overijse on July 5, 2019, on the eve of the start of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race. – On Saturday, July 6, the 106th edition of the Tour de France will start with a 194.5km stage in the region of Brussels, 100 years after the introduction of the yellow jersey. (Photo by ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)

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 a horrific crash last month.

Despite his lack of experience — he will start his second Grand Tour — Bernal is showing an impressive maturity.

“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 favorite 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.

Colombian rider Nairo Quintana (L) and teammates leave for a training session of Spain’s Movistar Team cycling team near Brussels on July 5, 2019, on the eve of the start of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race. – On Saturday, July 6, the 106th edition of the Tour de France will start with a 194.5km stage in the region of Brussels, 100 years after the introduction of the yellow jersey. (Photo by Anne-Christine POUJOULAT / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANNE-CHRISTINE POUJOULAT/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

“We will see riders who dare to attack, who try their luck, riders who race in an old-fashioned way,” Tour director Christian Prudhomme said.

Australian rider Simon Clarke waits before a training session of USA’s EF Education First cycling team near Overijse on July 5, 2019, on the eve of the start of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race. – On Saturday, July 6, the 106th edition of the Tour de France will start with a 194.5km stage in the region of Brussels, 100 years after the introduction of the yellow jersey. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP) (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

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.

Spanish rider Luis Leon Sanchez (2ndL) and teammates take part in a training session of Kazakhstan’s Astana Pro Team cycling team near Brussels on July 5, 2019, on the eve of the start of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race. – On Saturday, July 6, the 106th edition of the Tour de France will start with a 194.5km stage in the region of Brussels, 100 years after the introduction of the yellow jersey. (Photo by Marco Bertorello / AFP) / The erroneous mention[s] appearing in the metadata of this photo by Marco Bertorello has been modified in AFP systems in the following manner: [Spanish rider Luis Leon Sanchez] instead of [Danish rider Jakob Fuglsang]. Please immediately remove the erroneous mention[s] from all your online services and delete it (them) from your servers. If you have been authorized by AFP to distribute it (them) to third parties, please ensure that the same actions are carried out by them. Failure to promptly comply with these instructions will entail liability on your part for any continued or post notification usage. Therefore we thank you very much for all your attention and prompt action. We are sorry for the inconvenience this notification may cause and remain at your disposal for any further information you may require. (Photo credit should read MARCO BERTORELLO/AFP/Getty Images)

A colorful 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.

Slovakia’s rider Peter Sagan (front) of Germany’s Bora-Hansgrohe and teammates leave the team presentation ceremony at the Grand-Place – Grote Markt Square in Brussels on July 4, 2019, two days prior to the start of the 106th edition of the Tour de France cycling race. – On Saturday, July 6, the 106th edition of the Tour de France will start with a 194.5km stage in the region of Brussels, 100 years after the introduction of the yellow jersey and 50 years after Belgian legend Eddy Merckx won his first Tour. (Photo by JEFF PACHOUD / AFP) (Photo credit should read JEFF PACHOUD/AFP/Getty Images)

“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.

“Wout Van Aert is part of a terrific generation,” Prudhomme said. “He won back-to-back stages at the Dauphine. He was formidable. I don’t know who will be wearing the yellow jersey on July 19, but I have an idea about the favorite of the individual time trial scheduled that day.”

Van Aert’s versatility and physical skills make him dangerous on all grounds except the high mountains, 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 is another who 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.

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