Friendly fire: The Tour de France will be a battle between teammates

Geraint Thomas, one of the favorites to win this year's Tour de France, will see stiff competition from his own teammates. Luc Claessen/Getty Images

When you're the defending champion of the Tour de France, and the riders who finished second through fourth behind you won't be on the start line for the upcoming event, a repeat victory might ordinarily be considered a sure thing.

This year's race, which starts Saturday in Brussels, is shaping up to be anything but ordinary. And in pro cycling, there's no such thing as a sure thing.

There are two major storylines heading into this Tour, and they intersect upon Geraint Thomas, the 33-year-old Welshman who took a surprise victory last year.

Thomas wore the yellow jersey in Paris after finishing ahead of Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, who is out with a knee injury, and Chris Froome, the four-time Tour champion, who suffered a compound fracture to his femur during a prerace reconnaissance ride on June 12, ending his season. Primoz Roglic, the Slovenian who placed fourth last year, finished third at the Giro d'Italia in May and is skipping the Tour.

That's the first storyline: This year's race is more open than it's been in years. There are 15 riders with a realistic shot at a podium finish. Riders who have historically placed in the bottom half of the top 10 are now presented with the opportunity for a career-best finish.

The second storyline centers squarely on that fact that Thomas faces his biggest rival in teammate Egan Bernal, the 22-year-old Colombian sensation who will start only his second Tour on Saturday.

Last year, in his Grand Tour debut, Bernal played a key role in the high mountains riding in support of Thomas and Froome. He's had two serious crashes since then, one requiring plastic surgery to his mouth and nose, but he has returned quickly from both incidents. On June 23, Bernal won the Tour de Suisse, a weeklong warm-up for the Tour de France, assuming team leadership after Thomas crashed out with a shoulder injury.

That injury isn't expected to give Thomas too much trouble on the roads of France in July. Bernal, who is regarded as one of the best mountain climbers in the sport, could be another story altogether.

At the 2018 Tour, Thomas was granted joint leadership at Team Sky alongside Froome, who had won the Giro d'Italia eight weeks earlier and faced the inevitable questions of fatigue that come with that effort. Froome also faced a potential suspension for elevated levels of salbutamol tracing back to his victory at the 2017 Vuelta a España, but he was controversially cleared by the World Anti-Doping Agency the week before the Tour began.

While Froome struggled with an early crash and late-race exhaustion, Thomas -- who had never finished in the top 10 at the Tour in eight starts -- had a flawless race and proved strongest on a few key mountaintop finishes. Team Sky's Plan B became Plan A. The understudy had become the master, and they shared the podium in Paris, with Dumoulin in the middle.

The team's name has changed from Team Sky to Team Ineos, now backed by a British petrochemical manufacturer, but a very similar scenario could play out again one year later.

One key difference in 2019 is that Thomas does not share the same kind of history with Bernal as he does with Froome. Separated in age by one year and five days, Thomas and Froome have been teammates since 2008, first on a small South African team before joining Team Sky in 2010. Thomas rode in support of Froome at all four of his Tour victories, and over the years they've ridden together in British colors at world championship and Olympic events.

Thomas and Bernal, separated in age by 10 years and seven months, became teammates at the start of the 2018 season. They didn't come up through the ranks together. They never knew each other before they were among the biggest names in the sport. They're two riders at opposite ends of their careers, wearing the same red-and-black jersey, with the same objective of winning the Tour de France.

From outside the Ineos team bus looking in, both men are sticking with the company line -- strength in numbers, all that matters is that the team wins, the road will decide who is strongest. In reality, however, there's no question that both men acutely want to conquer the sport's biggest race. Victory brings with it bonuses, endorsement contracts, book deals, and prestige.

In December, Thomas was voted BBC's Sports Personality of the Year for 2018, ahead of Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton; his second book was published in February. A victory for Bernal would make him one of the biggest sports stars in Colombia, where only soccer outranks cycling among the nation's rabid sports fans.

"Winning the Tour de France last year was the highlight of my professional cycling career and racing with the No. 1 on my back is going to be special this year," Thomas said in a Team Ineos statement. "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."

Asked about the Tour de France after winning the Tour of Switzerland, Bernal's answer was equal parts politically correct and intentionally opaque. "I don't choose to say that I'm the favorite," he said. "I will go with Thomas, who will be our leader, and I will try to help him. If he is better than me, I will help him. I don't have any problem helping him. I am only 22 so I have a lot of Tours ahead of me."

This year's Tour route favors the climbers, with seven high-mountain stages and five summit finishes. Three of those summit finishes top out above 6,500 feet elevation -- an advantage for Colombian riders like Bernal, who live and train at altitudes over 10,000 feet.

Bernal, who hails from Zipaquirá (elevation 8,694 feet) is the biggest Colombian favorite, but he's not the only podium contender from the South American nation. Nairo Quintana, a three-time podium finisher from Cómbita (elevation 9,268 feet), leads a strong Movistar squad that also includes Spaniards Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde, the world champion. Rigoberto Uran, second overall behind Froome in 2017, hails from Urrao near Medellín (elevation 6,004 feet); he leads an EF Education First squad that includes American Tejay van Garderen and Canadian Mike Woods.

In the tactical game that is Grand Tour stage racing, the more cards a team has to play, the more riders a team can send up the road or gather around a leader, the better its chances for success. For this reason, Ineos, Movistar, and EF Education First have the strongest hands to play across three weeks. Not only are Thomas and Bernal two of the best all-around riders in the race, they're also supported by a big-budget team that has won the Tour six times over the past seven years with three different riders, perennially supported by all-star domestiques who might otherwise be leaders on another squad.

We'll have our first indication as to which riders are in contention for overall victory on Stage 6, finishing with the short, steep climb to La Planche des Belles Filles where Froome took his first Tour stage win in 2012. But the pivotal day that will likely determine how Team Ineos approaches the final mountainous week is Stage 13, a 27-kilometer time trial in Pau near France's southern border with Spain.

History shows that Thomas is stronger against the clock than Bernal. Conventional etiquette states that a rider does not attack the race leader within his own team. Should Thomas take yellow on Stage 13, would Ineos holster Bernal's prodigious talent in the high mountains to shepherd Thomas through the final week? Or would Ineos team manager Dave Brailsford go with a "let the road determine the winner" philosophy and cut Bernal loose? His record is mixed.

In 2012, an upstart Froome finished second behind teammate Bradley Wiggins, instructed to hold back though he was clearly stronger than Wiggins in the mountains. That race had a final time trial, however, which Wiggins won decidedly while wearing yellow; the course dictated the strategy. By contrast, this year, the final week is all for the climbers, where Bernal has the advantage. In 2018, Brailsford let Thomas and Froome work it out on the road, trusting in one another to support the stronger rider.

One thing is certain -- the rest of the GC contenders will be watching closely to see if team dynamics get in the way of either Bernal or Thomas riding to their potential. Another rider, from another team, may ultimately claim the yellow jersey, but until that picture becomes clearer all eyes will be on the team leadership question at Team Ineos.

Should Bernal win the Tour, the implications would be profound. Not only would Colombia have its first Tour de France champion, just two months after Ecuador's Richard Carapaz became the first rider from that country to win a Grand Tour, but questions around future leadership at Team Ineos would be paramount -- just as they've been intermittently for the past decade.

After winning the 2012 Tour, Wiggins was forced to miss the race the following year because of a knee injury. Froome won in his absence, Wiggins was not selected for the 2014 edition, and he never raced the Tour again. After winning the 2017 Tour, Froome faltered in 2018 and Thomas stepped in to take the victory. At the Tour de Suisse last month, Thomas crashed and Bernal stepped in to take the victory. The line of succession is clear; the timeline is all that remains in question.

Froome turns 35 next year, the furthest end of the historical spectrum for Tour winners, and how he'll return from his injuries remains unknown. Thomas turns 34 next year and has been a professional cyclist for all of his adult life, largely with the same team. Thomas is under contract with Team Ineos through 2021. Bernal is contracted with the team through 2023. For Brailsford it's an embarrassment of riches, but not without its predicaments.

What happens if Bernal, Thomas, and Froome are all vying for Tour leadership in 2020? It's a question Brailsford might prefer not to answer -- not yet, anyhow.

Neal Rogers has covered every major race in professional cycling, and every edition of the Tour de France since 2002.