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Sports

Tour de France begins under blistering sun

media Team Movistar receive a rock star welcome from crowds at the Grand Place in Brussels on 4 July, 2019. RFI/Rosie Collyer

The Tour de France began in the Belgian capital under blistering sun where cobblestone were the first challenge for the 147 cyclists in the 21 stages of the sports’ toughest competition that include race stages across the French Alps and Pyrenees mountain ranges.

With the Briton Chris Froome out of action, all eyes are on teammate Geraint Thomas to defend his Tour de France title. Chris Froome’s near fatal collision that broke his femur while training for the Criterium du Dauphine means he is out of the Tour de France.

This leaves a more open playing field for the riders who will navigate the potentially lethal cobblestones of Brussels in the first stage, and hope to make it to the finish line at the Arc de Triomphe in Paris four weeks later

Froome’s Ineos teammate Welshman Geraint Thomas, who won the Tour de France in 2018, said at a press conference in Brussels on Friday, “he’s one of the greatest ever grand tour riders and for him not to be in the line-up is a huge shame, for him personally but especially for the team. We’ll certainly miss him.”

Thomas is among the favourites along with Team Ineos captain Egan Bernal. The 22-year-old Colombian has become recent a phenomenon on the cycling circuit. He won the Tour of California in 2018 and the Tour de Suisse in June.

Bernal was born at 2600 metres above altitude close to the capital, Bogota. He was quick to dismiss the theory that genetics give him an advantage, “no it’s not that. It’s more that I train a lot.”

French favourites

Another favourite is Frenchman Thibaut Pinot who rides for one of the most successful professional cycling teams in France, FDJ. But the 29-year-old has a tumultuous relationship with the Tour de France. He came third in 2013, but has dropped out of two previous Tours.

Pinot’s win in the Tour de Lombardie last year has to some extent exonerated him in the minds of French cycling pundits. He told the sports newspaper L’Equipe, “if the stars are aligned then I know I can do better than in 2014”.

One of Pinot’s long-time rivals is fellow Frenchman Team AG2R La Mondiale’s Romain Bardet. His most significant weakness is time trials. That seriously hindered his chances in the 2017 Tour de France leaving him behind Froome and Rigoberto Uran in overall classification.

More mountains

What is different this year, and may work to Pinot’s advantage are the ever more grueling mountainous stages. The infamous ‘La Planche des Belles Filles’, 7 kilometers of hairpin bends at an average of 8.7 percent incline, is making a reappearance ensuring a torturous climb at the end of Stage 6.

Riders will also be dreading Stage 15 where Mur de Perguere looms over the foothills of the southern Pyrenees where there are inclines of up to 18%. It is often during these latter stages that the overall winner of the Tour de France is decided.

Yellow Jersey turns 100

Whoever rides into Paris wearing the Yellow Jersey this year can expect even more than a hero’s welcome. That’s because the coveted t-shirt is 100 years old.

“For the first six years of the Tour de France competitors wore mainly blue or grey. Their support team could barely identify them when they set off at 1am in the morning,” explains Fabrice Bourgoin, the curator of the exhibition, ‘One Hundred Years of the Yellow Jersey’ currently on display at the Wallonie Centre in Brussels.

Four men share the record for the most Tour de France wins; Belgian Eddy Merckx, Frenchman Bernard Hinault, Spaniard Miguel Indurain and Froome all won four Yellow Jerseys. None of whom are in this year’s line-up due to death, injury or retirement. Their record is set to remain intact for now.

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