A new season brings new narratives to follow. There are teams heading into 2019 with reshuffled rosters, managers hunting for sponsors, and stars set for intra-squad leadership showdowns.
As the racing develops throughout the racing calendar, so too will the storylines behind the scenes. Here are five of those storylines that we expect to spice up the 2019 road season.
Sky’s uncertain future
Andrew Hood, @EuroHoody: Of all the off-the-race intrigue and plotlines for 2019 — and there’s always plenty — the uncertain future of Team Sky will top the list. Since its inception in 2010, the British outfit has pushed the sport to new limits and created a firestorm of controversy at every pedal turn. With its WorldTour-leading budget (estimated at north of $40 million annually), Brailsford’s boys from Manchester have dominated the Tour de France, winning six of the past seven yellow jerseys with three different riders, an achievement unheralded in cycling history.
And pfffft! — just like that — all that could end. Sky’s corporate backers surprised the peloton last month when it confirmed the money pipes are running dry at the end of 2019. So let’s rev up that speculation machine: will Brailsford save the team? Will the riders hang around? Will the Tour’s most dominant team end with a whimper or a bang? Who will scoop up the likes of Chris Froome or Egan Bernal if the team folds?
As one sport director said, Sky’s possible demise is a journalist’s dream. While the possibility does generate endless story angles, there are other things we’d like to be writing about, like bike racing, perhaps?
Look at the bright side; at least we won’t be talking about Salbutamol ad nauseum.
Van der Poel vs. Van Aert
Spencer Powlison, @spino_powerlegs: Ever since Tom Boonen and Fabian Cancellara called it quits, I’ve thought that the spring classics lacked a really thrilling storyline. Sure, Peter Sagan entertains me to no end, and Philippe Gilbert amazed us as the ageless wonder, but come on … Niki Terpstra? Greg Van Avermaet? Matthew Hayman? Meh.
Enter two young stars whose trajectories have been on a collision course for years (in fact, they’ve literally collided in ‘cross races a few times). Wout van Aert and Mathieu van der Poel are the two rising cobblestone crushers that our sport needs. They already have a history of rivalry — Van der Poel seems impeccable throughout the ‘cross season and then Van Aert conquers him at worlds. Plus they have both proven up to the task in major road races. Van Aert was third at Strade Bianche and ninth at the Belgian Super Bowl that is Tour of Flanders. Van der Poel is reigning Dutch national road race champion.
We got a tantalizing preview of their road rivalry at European road race championships last year when they both made the podium (Van der Poel second, Van Aert third) behind Matteo Trentin. I hope for more of this in 2019. Van Aert should get some chances in the spring classics, and his Jumbo-Visma WorldTour team can back him up too. Van der Poel might be a little more under the radar with Pro Continental team Corendon-Circus. Wouldn’t they make an excellent combination in a late breakaway over the Paterberg?
Froome vs. Thomas
Dane Cash, @danecash: Sky has been a well-oiled grand tour machine for years, but the emergence of Geraint Thomas at last year’s Tour de France brings with it the potential for some serious intra-team intrigue. He and Chris Froome have both decided to target the 2019 Tour. Now what?
Thomas said and did all the right things in 2018, publicly supporting Froome as team leader in the Tour basically right up until the final podium. But Thomas is the defending champ now — it’s hard to imagine him being quite as deferential with a yellow jersey on his palmares. Froome, meanwhile, will be fresh for this year’s Tour, unlike last year, where he rode into France on the heels of a Giro d’Italia win. He won’t have the satisfaction of a pink jersey to fall back on, so don’t expect him to hand the reins over to Thomas quietly.
The potential for a leadership controversy in July will spice up the entire first half of the season. The one-week stage races in the first few months of 2019 will be all the more interesting with the last two Tour winners looking to prove themselves worthy to be Sky’s top dog at the main event this summer.
Can Quick-Step replicate 2018 — with a trimmed-down roster?
Chris Case, @chrisjustincase: Across the breadth of 2018, Quick-Step Floors found every which way to win races, with both its stars and lesser-known riders. The squad’s democratic approach resulted in a prolific tally of wins: 73 total professional wins, to be exact, with 38 of them at WorldTour races.
It was one of the most complete displays of team success in recent memory. And it raises the question: Does the team now called Deceunink-Quick-Step stand any chance of repeating such success in 2019?
Fernando Gaviria, Niki Terpstra, Maximilian Schachmann, and Laurens De Plus all left the squad at year’s end. On paper, that amounts to about a dozen wins. In reality, it’s not such a simple math equation. Wins come from talent, yes, but also from teamwork and confidence. There isn’t a more confident squad than the group known as “The Wolfpack.”
In many ways, there’s the potential for several riders to have even better years than last season, particularly given that newfound poise. Take Julian Alaphilippe for instance. He finally cracked the code to beat Alejandro Valverde at Flèche Wallonne. Perhaps that leads to a flurry of Ardennes victories. Likewise, Bob Jungels took a first monument victory. They say the first is always the hardest; now maybe the floodgates open for this uber-talented 26-year-old.
The list goes on. Plus, there’s the new face, Remco Evenepoel. Ready for this? The 18-year-old won the world junior time trial championship by over a minute and soloed away from his rivals with 20 kilometers remaining for the road world title two days later.
The bottom line: The name may have changed, but the Wolfpack could still prove to be cycling’s apex predators.
Sagan’s Liège attempt
Fred Dreier, @freddreier: This story didn’t get enough hype when it broke last year: Peter Sagan could make his first ever start at Liège-Bastogne-Liège this year. This news revives the much-hyped “Is Sagan cycling’s most versatile rider?” debate that we loved to argue over after he won the 2015 Amgen Tour of California. Since then Sagan has blossomed into a three-time world champion, this generation’s best cobblestone crusher, and the Tour de France’s most versatile sprinter.
Most of his biggest wins have come on hilly or flat terrain. But still, the debate over Sagan’s skills in climbing races like Liege is a compelling one to have in 2019. Sagan was painfully close to winning last year’s Amstel Gold Race, which has a similar amount of climbing to La Doyenne. And Liège-Bastogne-Liège has abandoned its finish in Ans, instead moving the finish back to Liège. Details of the final few kilometers have yet to be released, but it’s likely to have a flat run-in to the finish. Could Sagan survive La Redoute, the Cote de la Roche-aux-Faucons, and the other brutal climbs? If so, it would be his third Monument victory, leaving the extremely winnable Milano-Sanremo and the Tour of Lombardy left on his list.