Tour de France: SIX riders to watch

Geraint Thomas (AP)
Geraint Thomas (AP)

Brussels - The 2019 Tour de France embarks from Brussels on Saturday with a mountain-packed course and a more open field than in recent editions.

A brief look at six of the main contenders hoping to pull on the winner's yellow jersey at the iconic Champs-Elysees finish line in Paris on July 28:

Geraint Thomas (Ineos)

The 33-year-old defending champion, who arrived at the race in peak condition in 2018, left his preparations a little tight. He then suffered a setback with a fright on the Tour de Suisse when he fell heavily and took a knock to the head. Having Ineos team-mate Egan Bernal alongside him may actually play into his hands by causing a smokescreen to rivals. A great time-trialist, the Welshman has proved he can fight in the mountains thanks to his strong team.

Egan Bernal (Ineos)

On paper Bernal has all the ingredients to steal the show on the Tour on only his second appearance. Not only a gifted climber but also a solid all-rounder with a knack of closing out victories with seemingly hidden reserves. But at just 22 it remains to be seen if the success he has garnered in the Tour of California, the Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse can be reproduced at the much longer three-week Tour de France.

Nairo Quintana (Movistar)

Long in the shadow of four-time winner Chris Froome, Nairo Quintana has finished on the Tour podium three times, but ended the 2018 edition in 10th having suffered a costly fall on stage one. The 2019 route will play to the pure climber's strengths due to reduced time-trialling, and crucially, seven ascents above 2,000 metres, three of them summit finishes on what might be his last real roll of the dice. Now 29 and in his seventh season at Movistar he races as co-leader with some heavyweight back-up in another potential winner, Mikel Landa, and wily world champion Alejandro Valverde.

Jakob Fuglsang (Astana)

The Danish veteran won the key classic Liege-Bastogne-Liege in April, saying that in the closing kilometres he took the decision to win or die, having come second or third so many times. With his wife watching from the sidelines Fuglsang credited her with support and said he had finally grown into a winner at 34. The Astana captain then went to the Criterium de Dauphine one-week Tour warm up and won it, and can count on a powerful climb posse to protect him in France.

Rigoberto Uran (Education First)

The feisty climber came second in  the 2017 Tour. He was the leader of a powerful Colombian team at the 2018 world championships ahead of Nairo Quintana and Miguel Angel Lopez, although all of them faded on the so called 'Hell Hill' at Innsbruck. He fell in March's Paris-Nice but declared last week: "My season begins now". The newly recruited American rider Tejay Van Garderen leads a handy back-up crew for Uran.

Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida)

Known as the shark because of his devastating knack of taking out opponents at key moments, Nibali almost pulled off a fourth Grand Tour win in May when he came second in the Giro. With just four weeks recovery time since then Nibali has to be an outsider to clinch a second Tour de France, but the 34-year-old Bahrain Merida captain can climb with the best, is an accomplished time-triallist, is possibly the best downhill rider in the game, and in the absence of Froome and Dutch master Tom Dumoulin, will surely target at least the podium.

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