By Jim Cotton
Ineos have both reigning Tour de France champ Geraint Thomas and prodigious young talent Egan Bernal in their squad, and both are legitimate contenders to win the biggest race of the year. But where should the team be investing their energy and focus?
At present, all indications are that Geraint Thomas will go into the race as the top dog, with Egan Bernal stating after winning the Tour de Suisse that "if he [Thomas] is better than me I will help him.”
That ‘if he is better’ is a question that many will be pondering. Should the team actually be supporting the on-form climbing superstar Bernal?
At the Tour, it’s not always just about form though. Experience, the nature of the route, and respect of past achievement can also play a role. Let’s look at some of the things that have presented Brailsford with a royal pain in the Ineos.
Who has the form?
There’s no denying that, when he’s kept it upright, Bernal has been on a flyer so far this season. Although he crashed and broke his collarbone in advance of the Giro denying him his first opportunity to lead a team at a Grand Tour, he’s had a pretty textbook build to the Tour.
Back in March, he won a tough Paris-Nice, looking strong and prominent in echelons and howling crosswinds, riding strongly in the time trial, and showing early climbing form on the summit finish on the Col du Turini.
He continued that strong form through spring, placing third in the Volta a Catalunya, not long before his pre-Giro crash. However, he bounced back strong to win last week’s Tour de Suisse.
The field at the Swiss race wasn’t particularly potent, but the confidence Bernal will have gained in his first race since injury should be significant. He only ceded one second per kilometre to reigning world time trial champ Rohan Dennis (Bahrain-Merida) in the time trial, and romped to the win on the summit finish atop of the cobbled San Gotthardo.
However, let’s not think that Bernal’s success to date in 2019 puts him top of the pecking order for the Tour. Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma) had won all three stage races he’d raced prior to the Giro, and paid for going in to the Italian race too hot. At the tail-end of a long peak in form, the Slovenian’s slide down the podium spots in the final week was sad to see.
Having had time out of racing while he recovered from his crash injuries, Bernal isn’t carrying the load in his legs that Roglič did, but there’s always that element of risk.
In stark contrast, Thomas has been well below the radar, with perhaps the most conspicuous thing about his season to date being the races he hasn’t finished. He pulled out of Tirenno-Adriatico with illness, and crashed out of Tour de Suisse – two races which could be seen as key building block races towards the Tour.
The Welshman finished anonymously in 40th and 44th respectively at Tour of the Basque Country and Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana, and had an altitude camp on Tenerife curtailed by poor weather.
All of this leaves the only highlight of Thomas’ season to date as his third place in May’s Tour of Romandie, where he rode two strong time trials and finished third on the key summit finish. In his typically relaxed fashion, Thomas was unfazed by his season’s results to date however, remarking before the Tour de Suisse that he was nearly at race weight and the training was going well.
Let’s not forget of course that Thomas has been targeting the Tour all year, and in a similar way to Froome, was keeping his race schedule relatively light and predominantly as build-up races to the Tour. While the previous races may have been purely preparation races, missing Suisse is more of a blow for Thomas however, thanks to it's proximity to the Tour.
Having missed that opportunity and raced so infrequently through the year, will Thomas be ready for the massive stress placed on riders in the opening of the Tour?
Who has the experience?
Thomas is undoubtedly a veteran of the peloton, having been in the WorldTour for nine years, and taken part in 13 Grand Tours.
He’s proven several times that he knows what it takes to lead a team and win major stage races, with his first notable trip to the top step being in 2016’s Paris-Nice.
In contrast, Bernal is in his second year at the top flight, and only has last year’s Tour under his belt in terms of three-week racing. Bernal flourished in his debut Tour, notably on stage 12, where he helped set up Thomas for victory with a huge pull through the lower slopes of Alpe d’Huez.
However, he rode that race free of pressure to perform and out of the media spotlight, with Brailsford looking to give him experience and use his talent in the mountains as much as the youngster could manage.
Sure, the he has shown a cool head and the ability to direct team-mates when placed under pressure, as he did in his Paris-Nice victory.
But as they say, ‘the Tour is the Tour’. The biggest race of the year is a pressure cauldron that some cannot handle, with the constant demands for media time, the pressure placed on teams from sponsors – something all the more pertinent after the huge investment Ineos have recently placed in the team, and the constant attention of fans.
Although Thomas won last year’s Tour, he’s not actually a proven Grand Tour team leader.
Despite leading the 2018 Tour from stage 11, it seems that the team’s support – and presumably team leadership – fell on Froome’s shoulders until the very final stages of the race, where it was clear that his attempt to gain a fifth yellow jersey was over.
If you then look further back, he didn’t finish either of the three week races he started in 2017, crashing out of the both the Tour and the Giro. That Giro was his first, and so far only, shot at Grand Tour team leadership, where he shared responsibilities with Mikel Landa.
Who has the parcours on their side?
The fine details of Tour routes typically have a large impact on who races them, and of course, who flourishes. For example, time trial powerhouse Tom Dumoulin opted for the Giro this year due to its relatively heavy weighting towards time trial kilometres.
This year’s Tour is undoubtedly one for the climbers, and has been dubbed one of the hardest of recent years. With seven trips to over 2,000m, three of which come as summit finishes, whoever is going to take the Tour need their climbing legs. On the other end of the coin, there is only one ITT, a 27km rollercoaster through the Pyrenean foothills.
Thomas – the 2018 national time trial champion - is a proven force against the clock, placing on the podium in three ITTs in 2018, including in the Tour’s rolling test on the penultimate stage.
Bernal, however, is not renowned for his time trialling chops – but that’s far to say he’s weak on the TT bike, as a former Colombian national champion plus some solid performances already this season. And furthermore, with the time trial being one weighted towards climbing and technical skill as much as outright power and aerodynamics, the playing field between the Welshman and the Colombian is levelled somewhat.
Where Bernal is almost definitely the stronger of the pair is in the high mountain passes. Having been born in Zipaquira, a lung-testing 2,650m above sea level, Bernal is a proven force in the high mountains, and has shown numerous times to be one of the best climbers in the peloton. The seven huge climbs of the 2019 Tour are his playground.
All eyes on the first week
Brailsford seems in a tricky situation. With Thomas the reigning champion, it would seem improper him not to lead Ineos in July, and Bernal seems resigned to that.
However, what happens if, or perhaps when, Bernal proves himself to be stronger in the early stages of the race? Will there be a repeat of the situation faced by Team Sky in 2012, when Froome was arguably the stronger rider than his captain Bradley Wiggins, and tensions simmered?
Or will Brailsford have to adopt a co-leadership model, something that hasn’t proven successful in other teams (take, for example, Movistar’s ‘trident’ of the Tour last year)?
Brailsford will be kept busy this July considering how to control the array of threats posed by Movistar pair of Quintana and Landa, Jakob Fuglsang of Astana, Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), and the French pair of Thibau Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), in what is one of the most open Tours in years.
However, will he also be left scratching his head as to who should be the protected rider? With high mountains arriving as early as stage six, he may be thinking about it sooner rather than later.
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