PARIS – In the absence of injured four-times winner Chris Froome, all eyes will be on his 22-year-old Ineos team mate Egan Bernal to fill the void at the Tour de France.
Bernal, looking to become the first Colombian to win cycling's most prestigious race, has been promoted to Ineos co-leader after defending champion Geraint Thomas's preparations were hampered by a crash at the Tour de Suisse won by Bernal.
"It’s no secret my build-up has been affected by the crash at Tour de Suisse, but I’ve had a good block of training since and I feel ready," said Thomas.
"Discussing with the team, we believe it makes sense to go into the race with joint leaders as it gives us more options. Egan and I will work hard for each other and the team over the three weeks of the race."
Froome, winner in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017, was ruled out after suffering serious injuries in a crash at the Criterium du Dauphine and the race now has the feel of 1976 or 1983 – when Eddy Merck and Bernard Hinault respectively did not start.
Bernal, who looks a cut above the other top climbers and also won Paris-Nice in March, is the bookmakers' favourites ahead of Thomas.
But Ineos’s rivals are sharpening their knives, sensing that the British team, deprived of Froome’s authoritative figure, might not take their usual grip on the race.
In France, excitement has been mounting as the absences of last year's runner-up Tom Dumoulin and Froome increase the chances of the French celebrating a first local champion since Bernard Hinault won the last of his five titles in 1985.
"This year or never," sports daily L'Equipe wrote on their front page last month.
While Romain Bardet, in the top 10 in the last five editions and two podium finishes in 2016 and 2017, seems to have reached his peak, Thibaut Pinot, third in 2014, has added a new dimension.
The Groupama-FDJ climber won the Tour of Lombardy Monument classic last season and has shown impressive strength in the mountains this year, also rediscovering his time-trialing form.
"I'm 29 years old so I've still got quite a few years ahead of me," he said.
"On the other hand, this is a year in which I'm hitting peak form. I'm ambitious, I'm calm because I've done everything I can to be ready."
Pinot noted that several climbers would be at 'the same high level' and he is right.
Jakob Fuglsang won the Dauphine in impressive fashion and is the bookmakers' third favourite, but the Astana rider has yet to shine on the Tour, where his best finish was seventh in 2013.
Astana is one of the best-equipped teams for the race with Ineos and Movistar, who will rely on the formidable triumvirate of Mikel Landa and former podium finishers Nairo Quintana and Alejandro Valverde.
Italian Vincenzo Nibali, second in the Giro this year, will wait until the first hilltop finish at La Planche des Belles Filles to assess whether he has the legs to fight for a second title after 2014.
There will be further excitement for the French crowds as world number one Julian Alaphilippe and newly crowned French champion Warren Barguil look set to battle it out for the mountain classification's polka dot jersey.
Barguil won it in 2017 and Alaphilippe prevailed last year.
Peter Sagan of Slovakia will be bidding for a record-breaking sixth green jersey for the points classification after flying under the radar this season.
The race sets off from Brussels, 50 years after local legend Merckx won his first Tour, with a stage likely to end in a bunch sprint -- without 30-times stage winner Mark Cavendish who was omitted by Team Dimension Data.
There will be only one individual time trial shortly after the midway point but 30 categorised climbs with a gruelling 19th stage going through the Col de l'Iseran, 2,770 metres above sea level, after 89 kilometres of uphill riding.Reuters