This has been the most exciting Tour in decades, and now with only three stages to go, there are still a lot of potential winners left and lots of doubt about their potential to win. Of the bookies’ faves at the beginning of the race that the editors all discussed, only the two Frackers- Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal-- remain, as Adam Yates has dropped well out of contention and Jakob Fuglsang has dropped out of the race. Meanwhile, Julian Alaphilippe, whom none of the editors even mentioned in the discussion of potential winners, has over a minute and a half on his nearest rival, Thomas, going into these final stages. Then we have Thibaut Pinot looking like the strongest climber in the race sitting in fourth, less than two minutes down on Alaphilippe and Steven Kruijswijk looking strong and steady in third. That’s not even mentioning the second biggest surprise of the race behind Ala-- Emu Buchmann in 6th, only 2 minutes and change down on the wild card Mikel Landa lurking dangerously in 7th place.
With the Tour being still so undecided, I asked the other editors about their predictions for the rest of the Tour to see if we could redeem ourselves from the embarrassment of our pre-Tour predictions.* (*actually, with Trentin’s victory, Ewan’s sprinting prowess, and Jumbo’s domination, our predictions have been pretty good so far). So I asked the question of who we thought was going to win this thing. The following is our (only very lightly edited) discussion:
Shawn: Maybe we should start with the easier question-- can Alaphilippe hold onto yellow through the Alps? At the beginning of this race, for all of us that answer would have been a quick “no.” But after the last 16 stages, I think we have to at least entertain the possibility.
Andrew: You’re right, Shawn - that is an easy question. No, I don’t think Ala can hang on. The thousand yard stare at the end of Sunday’s stage told a bigger story than his time loss. I think he went awfully deep to stay in touch.
As to “embarassing predictions” I said that Pinot was a great chance for a podium, Bardet was a good value for the KoM comp betting, Jumbo would win six stages and Bernal would win the Tour. I’m not saying I’ve got everything right, but none of those things look stupid yet.
Jens: I think the bet I have made publicly says it all how little I believe in Alaphilippe. Still a hard no.
Andrew: After all my prognostication, if I can just avoid looking stupid I’m happy. Predicting bike races is hard, as Conor tells us.
Shawn: Andrew, the embarrassing prediction comment was more directed firmly at myself as you are right-- your predictions have panned out nearly as well as can be expected. Even though Geraint Thomas is still in contention, my predictions of Quintana and Porte doing well, Tejay getting a top 10, and Ewan cleaning up the sprints have aged like a glass of wine left out in the French sun for two weeks.
And while I think that it’s most likely that Alaphilippe cracks and loses so much time as to drop well out of the top 10, I think there’s still a little glimmer of hope there. I mean, last year I’m not sure anyone believed that Thomas would make it to the end of the Tour in yellow. Though Thomas definitely had more of a grand tour pedigree than Ala, Ala is the more gifted rider. If Ala can just ride conservatively and attach himself to Thomas’s wheel for the next three stages, maybe... just maybe he has a chance.
Andrew: I agree Ala is a more gifted rider, but that isn’t the same as being the best-suited to winning a Tour. I think G is better in the mountain passes. Another huge difference is that Thomas came into the ‘18 Tour on a pure build up schedule - four week long races and a few half-arsed efforts in classics, then the UK nats. Ala has been riding to win since Strade. His spring is in his legs and that is a third week problem.
(If the readers could see time stamps, this is when they’d realise that Shawn is suddenly feeling better about his Ewan prediction, whilst I’m feeling (marginally) worse about my Jumbo one.)
Chris: If Ala stays on Thomas’ wheel for the next three stages, it will mean both of them are in deep shit. I like Ala and love the idea of Quick Step poaching a Tour... which they will do if nobody steps up to take it from them. But he lost 1.20 to Pinot on one measly Pyrenean climb.
Conor: I don’t see what makes anybody reticent in any way about making Pinot the out and out favourite for this Tour. Alaphilippe will fall down the standings and Pinot is easily - easily - the best climber at the minute. Thomas’ clawing back time after being dropped on Sunday was for some reason painted as a victory for him. It was a loss. Pinot won that day as far as GC contenders were concerned. Just like on the Tourmalet. Just like what will happen at Tignes. Expecting Bernal to peak in the third week (which we now expect inexperienced riders to do, for some reason?) or Thomas to come back makes much less sense than embracing the best result this Tour could have: a French winner who has gone through trials and tribulations and is now coming into his own.
Jens: Seeing Pinot’s collapse in the Giro will always make me hesitant to call him an out and out favorite. Even his team says he is fragile health wise so every prediction about him will always come with that caveat. I’m not sure we’ll see Thomas “come back” but I could see him chugging along as he has done to this point and others being more erratic, having good spells and really bad spells. Kruijswijk is the big unknown to me. If Pinot stays fresh, I can’t see Kruijswijk overtaking him but add some Jumbo pressure at a point where Pinot falters a little, and then he could easily get bumped off.
Conor: Similar can be said about anybody. Thomas had his second crash of the Tour [on Stage 16]. Bernal and Kruijswijk have never won anything like this (or much at all) and all were well behind Pinot at the weekend.
Shawn: The reticence about Pinot for me is the Alpine heatwave that he’s going to be facing. The combination of the hardest climbs to come with the hottest weather doesn’t portend well for him to continue his dominant climbing. That, along with his Giro collapse, as Jens mentions, casts some doubt. And that’s not even to mention the pressure of carrying all the hopes of France on his back.
Chris: Saturday will be cooler with thunderstorms. Pinot weather. Could be pure magic!
Jens: Alaphilippe’s yellow rampage is Pinot’s greatest blessing so far. Until maybe Sunday it worked as a complete radar deflector.
Andrew: I’d also add that we’ve seen one of seven climbs over 2,000 meters so far. That’s advantage Bernal. I agree Pinot is probably the favourite, but I don’t think his advantage over Bernal is huge. The margins at the top are so tiny that I could easily see a switch in who drops whom.
Chris: It’s been so long since the Tour was this interesting. We can talk about all of these guys all day, there are so many possibilities. And we can thank two things: the diminishment of Sky/Ineos and dare I say, the lack of obviously doped guys who just motor on day after day. Fingers crossed on that last part, but the beauty of having actual humans is how unpredictable they are at the end of a grand tour.
Pinot is my pick but truly anything could happen. Even Landa on a rampage.
Conor: I have to disagree — the diminishment of Ineos is very minor. The diminishment of Thomas is the real issue. This Tour would still be (correctly) perceived as boring if Thomas attacked and won on the Tourmalet even without Wout Poels to shepherd him. He’d be there in second waiting for a coronation having ridden a perfect, classic Sky race. As it is we have Pinot fighting his way up the GC.
Jens: Landa did a great rampage Sunday. And yet it ended like it always does, with very little time gain. Like shearing a pig, a lot of screaming for very little wool.
Chris: Ineos are the second-strongest team in the mountains. I agree they are still good, but in past years the gap from them to the next team was unbreachable. Now it’s nil.
And with Jens’ comment, I will never look at Landa without seeing this image.
Conor: Sure, but Froome didn’t need the strongest team to win any of his Tours except maybe 2015.
Chris: Probably, but he had them, and it sure wasn’t fun.
Shawn: Has it been a diminishment of Thomas, though, Conor? If we all discount Ala holding onto yellow, Thomas is in virtual yellow, still 15 seconds ahead of Pinot. My greatest fear is seeing the reemergence of the Sky train on these last three mountain stages, where the longer slopes and more consistent gradients would suit such a style of riding. I still think that in the end, Ineos is going to win this thing. If Brailsford wanted to disappoint all the fans, he would restore order to the team, do away with this whole 2 leader experiment, and have Bernal ride as a deluxe domestique for the defending champ.
Conor: Yes, it has. The Thomas that just left everyone behind at the top of L’Alpe last year is unrecognisable to the guy standing at Prat d’Albis on Sunday. He was downcast and demoralised in his interview. I’m convinced he won’t win. The crashes, the getting dropped, mentally he is not there.
Jens: I have the same fear as Shawn, was just about to write basically the same comment. I could easily see Ineos rallying. Van Baarle bossing the lower slopes, Bernal getting put in the harness to be last man and Poels and Kwiat alternating on stages to do those late suicide pulls that blows some contender out the back every day.
Chris: Thomas fell off his bike again today. Death of a thousand cuts and bruises?
Maybe Ineos will boss the pace, but I’m not sure it hurts Pinot as much as the others. Also one hopes that Jumbo and Movistar decide not to just let them do this.
Shawn: With Landa, while shearing him does very little good for his own chances, perhaps all of that screaming despite the lack of wool will help the other teams. I can see him playing the later-career Contador role and going on the attack and helping another rider to victory. Perhaps that rider may even be Buchmann, who hasn’t gotten a mention yet.
Conor: Buchmann’s riding brilliantly. Not sure he’s capturing hearts and minds though.
Chris: If we repeat the nickname Emu enough, the public will get there.
Shawn: Yep, if there’s one thing we know about the public, it’s their love of large, flightless birds.
Jens: The European Monetary Union is another one that captures hearts and minds too.
Andrew: I love an emu, although like Jens I have limited excitement where EMU is concerned. I think Buchmann’s been good without ever looking like winning. What’s the top-5 version of Zubeldia-ing (is there one?) because I think that’s what we’ll see.
As to Ineos, there’s a couple of things that are worth mentioning. One is the drop from 9 riders to 8, which didn’t get much press but does limit the ability of teams to run twin leaders. The other is that Ineos, rightly in my opinion, never go all mountaineers. By giving a space to Rowe, as well as keeping Moscon, Castro and van Baarle who are at least all-rounders, they weaken themselves in the mountains but it ain’t a coincidence that their guys usually have an advantage after the difficult flat stages. However, it means that if Flower and Poels are below form, there’s fewer places to hide. What would they give to have brought, say, Ellissonde as a ninth rider?
For all that, I am still favouring Bernal. It is partly my Bayesian prior (thanks, Nate Silver!) but it isn’t the “third week boost” so much as that I think the altitude will suit him, I can see weaknesses in some and a peak that may not last in Pinot. If Ala collapses, the margins for the next five are so narrow that it is basically starting from scratch. I don’t see him being put in harness though if anyone will, it is Brailsford.
Conor: Plus Moscon is suffering karmic retribution this year. Would you know he’s riding?
I suppose our attitudes are a great thing. When was the last time you could even have a serious argument about who’d win the Tour this late on, mentioning contenders from different teams? 2011?
Chris: 2008 for my money was the last great, intriguing Tour with no (or at least few) asterisks. Before that you have to wind back to the LeMond days.
Bernal was born at some 3800 meters, so he may continue to suffer from the effects of low altitude.
Conor: Yeah I was saying to a friend of mine that this was the best Tour since 2008.
I’m not totally sold on the “every Colombian gets a boost above 2000 meters thing.”
Chris: Yeah, that may be more of a relic from the days where the lowlanders had no idea how to acclimate themselves, while Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra were like, 2000 meters, whatever.
Andrew: I guess we’ll see. I still buy an advantage, even if diminished. As to Moscon, he has been dreadful. Is there a selection issue? I can’t offhand think who they’ve left out, but the team usually pick from a long list and can drop the out of form guys.
Rosa and Elissonde were the obvious choices but neither look better than this mob.
Conor: Does there come a point in June where Brailsford asks Moscon (who obviously should be in Sky’s Tour side if in proper form) “can you deliver” and Moscon says “yes”?
Andrew: I suppose there must have been. A good June definitely helps in July.
Conor: Sure, but if that conversation did happen then Moscon surely lied. Which is a hell of a breach of trust, no?
Andrew: Yeah. A bit like Quintana and the legs chat. The sort of thing there’s no coming back from. Moscon brings so much baggage that he has to be brilliant. If he’s not delivering, he must be on a shorter leash than most others.
Chris: Moscon did hit the deck a week ago, maybe he left a little something on the road that day besides little splinters of carbon fiber.
Conor: There’s a rider that’s made for UAE-Emirates.
He’s not wearing strapping but sure, maybe he hurt his back.
Andrew: Some website (not ours) should keep a list of guys who’ve crashed, sortable by stage and severity. I can’t keep up.
I think he, Nairo, Rohan and Warren should form a team.
Conor: At this rate, they will: Arkea.
Nairo’s going there, Warren’s already there, nobody else will take Rohan after his tantrum and Moscon will look at those three and feel at home.
Chris: Ooh, maybe this can be a new data project! Guys who don’t crash may be the new transfer market inefficiency!
Andrew: Just googled Arkea. So sad they’re a bank. There were funnier options. Can they get Relate as a co-sponsor (or the French equibalent)?
Chris, where was your data when Euskatel needed you? Too soon?
Conor: Not nearly soon enough.
Chris: Well they limited themselves to local riders from the mountain-goat category, so no amount of statistics was going to keep them upright in northern France or the Low Countries.
Conor: I hear Fernando Alonso is going to save them.
Chris: Last note maybe? Bernal is telling the media how he’s rested and ready, likes hot weather and loves altitude. Maybe him winning makes more sense than even Pinot.
Conor: Nah. Tibopino ftw.
Shawn: While Bernal as the winner makes the most sense to me, this Tour has stopped making sense a while ago.... somehow, we’ll probably end up with Valverde in yellow.
Jens: Thank god I didn’t read that last bit last night or I wouldn’t have been able to get a good night’s sleep.