The countdown to the Tour de France 2019 is on and all eyes will be fixed on defending squad Team Ineos, as they look to add another Grand Tour to their ever-growing tally.
Sir Dave Brailsford’s team will be returning as the outright favourites, having won six of the last seven editions with three different riders.
Last year, the long-serving Geraint Thomas took his first ever Grand Tour victory when he rode to a surprise win in France.
His four-time Tour winning team-mate Chris Froome finished on the podium, having won the Giro d’Italia just weeks earlier.
But who are Team Ineos likely to take to the 2019 Tour de France?
Team Ineos find themselves in an unusual situation this Tour de France, as they are likely to take three riders with the potential to finish on the top step in Paris.
Chris Froome is of course the bookmakers’ favourite, as he goes for a record-equalling fifth Tour victory.
The 34-year-old has now won all three Grand Tours becoming the first Brit to ever achieve that feat, making him an almost-definite starter for the squad and the most likely rider to receive full backing from Team Ineos if they are forced to choose.
However, Geraint Thomas is expected to return to the Tour with number one on his back after his 2018 victory.
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The Welshman will be keen to prove his talents once more in France and repeat his first Grand Tour win.
Thomas is almost guaranteed a spot in the squad, even based purely on his abilities as a support rider and back-up general classification contender, but after last year’s win he could even find himself in a joint leadership role with Froome.
The final rider believed to have the capability of winning a three-week race is young Colombian star Egan Bernal.
Team Ineos have tipped Bernal as a future Grand Tour winner and have wasted no time in giving him opportunities to prove his potential.
Having won Paris-Nice this season, Bernal was due to be given his first leadership responsibilities in only his second Grand Tour at the 2019 Giro d’Italia but suffered a broken collarbone during a training crash on the eve of the race.
Ineos are now likely to take Bernal to the Tour, where he is not expected to be the sole leader but could find himself as a supported rider if fortune sways in his favour.
Much of Ineos’s dominance in the Tour de France has come down to their wealth of talent in the high mountains, where they are regularly the squad with the most riders remaining at the head of field.
With their trio of potential leaders, there are only two riders likely to take on the key support roles on the steeper gradients – Polish champion Michał Kwiatkowski and Wout Poels.
While Kwiatkowski sees himself as a future Grand Tour winner, his Tour de France role would be mountain domestique duties.
The Milan-San Remo winner and former world champion has often been seen emptying himself completely on mountain stages in support of Froome.
After an uncharacteristically quiet first half of the season Kwiatkowski is currently riding with Froome at the Critérium du Dauphiné, making him a likely rider for the final selection.
Another Dauphiné rider who is likely to make it into the Ineos squad for the Tour is Dutchman Wout Poels, who has been riding well in France and hasn’t left the side of Froome over the opening two stages.
With 12 Grand Tours to his name, the 31-year-old is an experienced domestique and has plenty of wins on his palmarès prove his strength.
Helpers on the flat
While mountain domestiques are key to a Grand Tour squad, you also need strong riders to control the race on the flats.
Team Ineos have always picked powerful and experienced riders for the flats and this year they have a few options.
Luke Rowe is most likely first pick, as an experienced road captain, always a strong rider and with tactical nous to decimate a race in the crosswinds.
Rowe hasn’t ridden since the Tour of California last month, so may need one more race in his legs before the Tour (possibly the Tour de Suisse with Thomas), but he’s a strong candidate to make the cut.
Jonathan Castroviejo is another powerful option for the squad, with a strong time trial pedigree.
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With a team time trial on stage two, the Spaniard’s testing will be a major asset that can then be transferred to the flats.
Castroviejo also climbs well which means he can be a factor later into mountain stages, particularly on the valley roads between the ascents.
Dutchman Dylan van Baarle is also likely to make the selection, having ridden with Ineos in their major pre-Tour tests including the Dauphiné and the Tour de Romandie.
Van Baarle’s strong sprint also make him a candidate for stage wins, if Ineos find themselves chasing a result.
Famed for their depth, Team Ineos have plenty of extras who could make the cut for the 2019 Tour de France squad.
Gianni Moscon is currently riding the Dauphiné but has struggled for form this season after a crash in the UAE Tour that left him concussed.
Moscon has also been a controversial figure in the peloton, being disqualified from last year’s Tour for punching Fortuneo-Samsic rider Elie Gesbert.
While he’s not likely a first pick for the squad this year, Moscon remains an option for a call up.
Kenny Elissonde is another possibility for Ineos, having helped Froome to Giro d’Italia victory last season.
But the Frenchman has never ridden a Tour de France and is not as strong as some of his team-mates on the climbs.
Brit Ian Stannard has been a faithful workhorse for Ineos in nine previous Grand Tours, including three Tours de France.
The 31-year-old has been outstanding at controlling the pace on the flats and thrives in tough conditions, but with a team time trial on stage two and an individual test on stage 13, the team are likely to opt for Castroviejo with is experience in TTs.