Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal the men to beat and other Tour de France talking points

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This year’s Tour de France begins on July 6 in Belgium.

Here, we take a look at the key talking points ahead of the race.

How is Geraint Thomas faring?

Defending champion Geraint Thomas has been named as joint leader alongside rising star Egan Bernal as Team Ineos – previously known as Team Sky – bid for a seventh Tour de France title in eight years.

Bernal, 22, was one of Thomas’ support riders in 2018. But he comes into this edition as many people’s favourite for the yellow jersey after a stunning season so far.

The Colombian, who won the Tour de Suisse last month, also triumphed in Paris-Nice in March and finished third in Volta a Catalunya a fortnight later. He is a menace on the climbs and if victory does not come for him this season, then no doubt, he’ll be a Tour champion in the not too distant future.

Thomas has been in the wars since crashing out in Switzerland. The Welshman may be short on racing this season, which could make his defence of the maillot jeune more difficult, but experience and some freshness could help him when tackling the gruelling peaks of the Cols de Vars, Izoard and Galibier on week three.

Who are the main challengers?

In Froome’s absence and Thomas’s lack of spark, the race feels wide open.

With this, confidence will grow in respective riders who will be ready to raise their game.

Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana, Jakob Fuglsang, Adam Yates and more will up the temperature knowing that one key favourite is missing and the other is low on preparation.

Quintana, a past winner of the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana, has been repeatedly earmarked as a favourite since 2013, but the question remains if the ship has sailed for the 29-year-old. He finished 12th in 2017 and 10th in 2018.

For Fuglsang, the Dane is heading into his ninth Tour but never finished in the top-five. But at 34-year-old, he is having the best year of his career, winning Liege–Bastogne–Liege and the Criterium du Dauphine – a prime tester for the Tour.

Backed by one of the strongest Astana teams in recent years, Fuglsang should be a threat.

French desperation

It is now 34 years since Bernard Hinault roared into the streets of Paris to lift the coveted Tour de France title.

Yet, in the years since, French riders seem incapable of winning cycling’s biggest prize.

And whether French riders have a shot at ending the nation’s lengthy losing streak this year remains to be seen.

Froome’s absence will only increase hope that Romain Bardet – the most likely candidate – or Thibaut Pinot can end that wait.

Bardet may carry the burden more than his compatriot, with his podium finishes in the last three years showing he has the skills, mind and general class to mount a challenge on the yellow jersey.

Similarly, Pinot could be a real force. The mountainous routes will suit him and the stage six summit finish in La Planche des Belles Filles is part of his daily training ride.

He lives just 35 minutes away in Melisey. However, general consistency in team and individual time trialling may dent his overall hopes.

France has produced some superb riders in recent years, but to have no winner since Hinault may just be down to pure unluckiness and the depth of talent being stronger than ever.

Sagan for green?

Three-time world champion Peter Sagan can be a class apart on his day and has won the points classification in six of his last seven Tours.

With seven sprints expected in the 2019 edition, the Slovenian is expected to be a force around the roads of France.

Dylan Groenewegen, Cabel Ewan and Elia Viviani may clinch stage wins, but Sagan’s ability to stay in the race during the mountain stages adds to his prospects of retaining the green shirt.

The 29-year-old excels with pressure, and although anonymous for much of the season so far, can turn it on when needed against stellar opposition.

Questions remain about his form on and off the road with many believing his appetite is beginning to wane.

Michael Matthews may be Sagan’s closest challenger in the battle for green, but this will be the perfect stage for Sagan to prove this diagnosis wrong about his lack of motivation.

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