In a yet-to-be-published story on Cyclingnews, Jonathan Castroviejo describes his Team Ineos teammate Egan Bernal as not your typical South American rider. The pair have grown to know each other well over the last 18 months, having roomed together at several races, including during Bernal's recent win at the Tour de Suisse.
They will bunk up once more at the Tour de France, with Castroviejo acting as Bernal's sounding board, as well as his loyal protector on the road.
At times, despite his successes and vast experience for a 22-year-old, it's easy to forget just how tender in age Bernal actually is. The press was given a glimpse of that when, during his pre-stage press conference, he was asked by one scroll if he knew who Eddy Merckx was. Bernal's English is ever-improving, but he was caught off-guard, perhaps by the relevance of the question. This was not in his Team Ineos briefing notes.
Team principal Dave Brailsford had to lean into the Colombian's ear and, given a translation and explanation, and after what seemed like an age, Bernal smiled and answered back, 'Yes.'
The response was met with laughter from the press – not at his response per se, but at the time it took for the response to come. But for the briefest of moments, Bernal seemed to think that the cackles were directed at him, and, for that split second, one could see that he didn't understand. It wasn't so much fear in his eyes as simple inexperience in the moment. Castroviejo, however – sat to Bernal's right – was called into action before the race has begun, offering a quiet word of encouragement to his younger teammate.
At this point, with the Tour just about to start, perhaps inexperience, pressure and the fear of the unknown are Bernal's greatest hurdles when it comes to winning a maiden Tour de France.
"This is my second Tour de France, and for sure I'm hoping to do my best and enjoy the race. I'm not thinking about winning. I'm just thinking about doing my best," Bernal told Cyclingnews on Thursday evening in Brussels.
"The Tour is a really big race, and I have a lot of respect for it. I'm just 22, and we have in the team the last winner of the Tour de France. So I don't want to put pressure on myself. I just want to go day-by-day and see what happens. I'm not thinking about the yellow jersey. We'll just take it stage-by-stage, and then we'll see," he said.
What we've seen is that, despite his age, Bernal has been gifted joint leadership alongside defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas at Team Ineos for the race. It's perhaps justified given his results this season, but when a pedal has yet to be turned in anger, there's always room for speculation.
One theory is that Bernal is in fact the team's plan A, and that by giving Thomas – who hasn't had the results or form this season – a joint-leadership tag, they're shielding Bernal from the pressure of leading the team until the first summit finish on stage 6. At the same time, the decision gives Thomas the respect he publicly deserves as the defending champion. It really is speculation, of course, and time will be the true test of who leads the squad, but if the cycling fraternity has learned anything from Ineos and Team Sky over the years, it's that they know how to rally around someone and protect them.
"I think you have a physical age and a mental age, but when you're ready, you're ready. He's ready," Brailsford served up at the team press conference on Friday when asked about Bernal.
Bernal offered his own assessment of the situation when asked once again about leading the squad.
"I think that I'm young to be a GC rider, but I have a team with a lot of experience. For me, it's a little bit easier when you have some teammates that you can follow. I follow them and they put me in a good position in the final, and then I try to do my best. With a team like this, maybe it's a little bit easier," he said.
When it comes to this year's Tour de France it could be Bernal who sets the pace which everyone else must follow.
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