Team Jumbo-Vista may have dominated post-lockdown racing, writes Jack Houghton, but they represent poor value to provide the Yellow Jersey winner in Paris...
"With his wizened features and dense palmares, it can be easy to think that Quintana must be nearing retirement..."
Why is the Tour starting in August and will it go ahead?
The Tour - original scheduled to start as normal in late-June - was postponed in April following President Macron's announcement that bans on mass gatherings in France would be extended until July. Tour organisers, working with the UCI, cycling's governing body, were quick to confirm new dates. The Tour, which now begins in Nice on 29th August, will follow the same route as originally planned, ending in Paris on 20th September.
Professional cycling resumed on 1 August, with the one-day race, the Strade Bianche, and has subsequently seen a compressed series of Tour de France warm-up races, including the Critérium du Dauphiné, a usually pivotal trial.
With a raft of measures in place to reduce risk of Covid-19 infection spread - including regular testing, the peloton and race organisers existing in "bubbles", and various restrictions around media and fan interaction with riders - those involved seem bullish about these new plans carrying through. However, amid rising confirmed cases of the virus in France, there must remain some uncertainty around the race's 2020 future.
A "brutal" route
Unlike 2019 - which saw a first week that was more tourism advertorial than General Classification race - this year's route immediately throws Yellow Jersey contenders stages of note. Even Stage 1, which is billed by organisers as a sprinter's stage, contains four lumpy climbs, and whilst it's likely we'll see a bunch finish and a sprinter claim the first Yellow Jersey, it is also likely that several fast men, lacking race fitness, will struggle to contest it.
And this story continues throughout the 21 stages. Organisers claim there are nine flat stages, but, examining the route in detail, it's hard to count more than five, and even a couple of those will hold interest for breakaway baroudeurs.
Indeed, this route is all about climbing. Starting in Nice and taking an anti-clockwise loop around the bottom half of France before finishing in Paris, it visits five mountain ranges, has 8 claimed mountain stages (I count 9), and sees six summit finishes.
There is one individual time trial, but even this sees a finish on La Planche des Belles Filles, the new pet mountain of Tour route planners. Coming on the penultimate day, this might be pivotal, especially as GC hopefuls with time trialling backgrounds - think Tom Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic - should be able to pull time back from the more out-and-out climbers like Egan Bernal.
When this year's route was announced last October, Chris Froome described it as "brutal". That brutality will be magnified by the truncated seasons the main contenders have had. Unlike previous Tours - where Yellow Jersey hopefuls have been able to focus their efforts into a couple of blocks of intense climbing days which have decided things - this route sees a continuous flow of race-significant stages. Any fitness concerns riders bring to the race will soon be exposed.
While other high-profile riders have shown good form in the three weeks of racing we've had, Team Jumbo-Vista have been all-conquering. Primoz Roglic won the Tour de l'Ain, and looked set to win the Dauphine before abandoning on the penultimate day. Other Jumbo-Vista riders have looked strong, too, with Wout Van Aert repeatedly on the winner's rostrum. Most impressive, though, has been their strength-in-depth, with the waspish black-and-yellow of the team's strip ever-present at the front of the peloton, exerting a dominance we usually expect from Team Ineos.
It's unsurprising, then, that Primoz Roglic ([2.90]) and Tom Dumoulin ([8.00]) are both prominent in the market, with Roglic edging favouritism in most lists.
Prior to Roglic's win in the Vuelta a Espana last year, there were still doubts around whether he was able to sustain high-mountain form across three weeks of a grand tour. Those doubts are largely gone now, but it's worth remembering that he was able to ride defensively there after building up a three-minute lead on a strong-but-not stellar field in the time trial on Stage 10. And while we can assume that his early departure from the Dauphine was only precautionary, his odds look on the skinny side on a route that is not ideal for him.
At the odds, Dumoulin is probably the better value of Jumbo-Vista's duo. Winner of the Giro in 2017 and ever-present at the front end of grand tours in recent years, Dumoulin's move to a GC-focused team for this season should see him better able to capitalise, although, much like his teammate Roglic, he would have preferred a longer, flatter time trial or two, in order to build a defensive cushion against the specialist climbers in the race.
Team Ineos aren't interested in warm-up races
Chief among those specialist climbers will be defending champion, Egan Bernal ([3.75]) of Team Ineos. Winner of La Route d'Occitanie when racing resumed on 1st August, and second in the Tour de l'Ain, Bernal continued to show solid post-lockdown form at the Dauphine, before precautionarily abandoning the race to nurse a back problem after Stage 3.
Bernal has not been flashy in these warm-up tussles - often being bested in the final moments of climbs - and with Team Ineos not having its usual control of the peloton under the onslaught of Jumbo-Vista, it's understandable why some are questioning the likelihood of a Bernal repeat. It's worth remembering, though, that Bernal did not show himself until the third week of the Tour last year, where he will be aiming to be at his peak this year too: winning warm-up races is not his aim.
With the support of a formidable team, including decoy-rider Richard Carapaz ([16.00]) (the winner of the Giro in 2019), Bernal is the best value of the favourites, especially after the news that previous Tour winners Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, who weren't selected to represent Team Ineos, won't be there to cause disharmony in the ranks.
It's not all about Ineos and Jumbo-Vista
Given the ubiquity of the Jumbo-Vista versus Ineos narrative in the media, it would be easy to think that there are no other riders worth considering in this year's Tour, and the market certainly seems skewed by this misconception. Value-conscious punters might be served by looking elsewhere, then.
On any possibles list has to be Thibaut Pinot ([9.00]), who many view as having been unlucky in 2019, when he had to abandon the race on Stage 19 after tearing his quadricep. Pinot was still a chunk of time down in the general classification then, though, and he's a rider that has historically promised a lot but courted unluckiness. At similar odds to Dumoulin, he looks a poor betting prospect.
Tadej Pogacar ([13.00]) is popular and has shown good form, but still has a lot to prove before he can be considered a reliable prospect for a three-week stage race at those odds, and a similar argument can be made against Daniel Martinez ([34.00]).
At different stages of their careers, but also with doubts around their prospects of sustaining an effort that could see them top the podium in Paris are Mikel Landa ([70.00]), Miguel Angel Lopez ([70.00]), Rigoberto Uran ([120.00]), Richie Porte ([120.00]) and Adam Yates ([200.00]). Expect all of these to be in contention for key stage wins, however.
The best of the outsiders
Most interesting of the outsiders are Julian Alaphilippe ([44.00]) and Nairo Quintana ([50.00]). Alaphilippe led the Tour for 14 stages in 2019, with swashbuckling rides that saw him constantly surprising the favourites, only losing the Yellow Jersey on a chaotic Stage 19 that was abandoned midrace.
With a more measured approach to racing, Alaphilippe could be a surprise winner, especially as the route - which sees significant stages splattered across the three weeks, rather than concentrated in blocks - will suit his riding style. Alaphilippe is a solid back-to-lay proposition.
With his wizened features and dense palmares, it can be easy to think that Quintana must be nearing retirement. At only 30, though, he is likely reaching his peak as an endurance athlete, a fact underlined by his victory on Stage 7 of Paris-Nice in March.
Since the resumption of racing, Quintana seems to be returning to his best form, coming a close third behind Roglic and Bernal at the Tour de l'Ain and looking solid at the Dauphine. A crash in training in early July reportedly set his training back by 10 days, but he seems to have recovered, and should have ridden himself into shape by the start of the Tour. At the odds, he looks massive value.
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Back Egan Bernal @ [3.75]
Back Nairo Quintana @ [50.00]
Back (to lay) Julian Alaphilippe @ [44.00]