Team Ineos jumped from one potential internal leadership conflict to another for the 2019 Tour de France and may be holding a tiger by the tail in upstart Colombian Egan Bernal. That's the takeaway from this past month of racing leading up to the Grand Boucle for Chris Horner, the now-retired 2013 Vuelta a Espana champion who recently signed on as an analyst with NBC Sports' Tour de France broadcast team.
The story of potential duelling Team Ineos loyalties between defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas and four-time winner Chris Froome literally came crashing down almost a month before the July 6 start in Brussels when Froome suffered multiple serious fractures in a training incident at Criterium du Dauphine, ending his chances to win a record-tying fifth Tour de France this year.
Weeks later, however, Thomas' leadership for the Tour came under scrutiny when he crashed out of Tour de Suisse and 22-year-old Bernal put in an impressive performance in the mountains and in the stage 8 time trial to win the Tour tune-up race. Now Team Ineos could have a problem keeping Bernal's justified ambition leashed to Thomas' porch after the Briton's so-far wobbly lead-up to his Tour defence.
Shifting gears before the pedalling starts
"At NBC we were thinking the main topic was going to be Geraint Thomas and Froome and how were they going to play it. That was going to be the number-one thing talked about," Horner told Cyclingnews last week form his home in Bend, Oregon.
"Then Froome crashed out, and all of a sudden we thought we don't even have a leadership battle at Ineos anymore. Then all of a sudden Egan Bernal is leading Tour de Suisse and looks really good and Thomas crashes out. From my experience as a rider and with teams, how can you not at least keep him on the side as a really close number two? All of the sudden the battle's back on within the team."
Thomas has come into the end of June in different condition than he was last year. He admitted celebrating his 2018 victory to the maximum and turned up for the start of the season overweight and off his usual form.
An anonymous early season was topped off when he had to abandon Tirreno-Adriatico with stomach problems and then put off an altitude camp at Tenerife because of snow. He returned for Pais Vasco and finished 40th, then ramped things up with third at Tour de Romandie as his preparation appeared to be getting back on track. He was knocked off track again during stage 4 at Suisse, however, when he hit the deck and suffered abrasions to his shoulder and a cut above his right eye that forced him to quit.
"With Thomas’ weight gain over the winter, with his lack of racing, then his crash at the Tour de Suisse, and then there was also a bump on the head, you have to question his form," Horner said.
"Was there a concussion? I’ve had many concussions, and if you have a bad concussion it will affect your form. You won’t find that peak form that you’re looking for if you really hit your head hard. So if he had any kind of concussion issues, he’s not going to find 100 per cent form."
Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal on Alpe d'Huez in the 2018 Tour de France (Bettini Photo)
A 'beautiful' Colombian
It's obviously not been a clear and steady path to the 2019 Tour de France for the defending champion, while Bernal showed at Tour de Suisse that the broken collarbone that kept him out of the Giro is no longer slowing him down. With all Thomas' problems, it's hard to see him keeping up with his younger teammate in the Tour's mountains, and Horner believes that could cause a bit of a conundrum for the team.
"You have to look at Egan Bernal as a possible Grand Tour winner, even at 22 years old," Horner said. "You have to ask: Can he get through the flat stages? But you look at Paris-Nice, and the answer is an absolute yes.
"He was beautiful in Paris-Nice with his ability to follow wheels and stay out of trouble and always stay at the front. He was in a group of four or five rolling in the crosswinds away from everybody. The Tour is quite a bit different than Paris-Nice, but it still shows that he can ride in the group. We all know he can climb."
Bernal proved himself the consummate teammate last year during Thomas' Tour-winning ride, staying by his team leader in the mountains and pacing back any dangerous moves. Bernal finished the race 15th overall, nearly half an hour down on Thomas. Horner said he expects Bernal to play the good teammate role again this year – up to a point.
"I'll bet Bernal will wait for Thomas during the first few mountain stages if they make it through the flat days without losing time," Horner said. "But there's no way he can or should wait if Thomas is having problems and 10 guys are going up the road. If one or two guys get a small gap, Bernal will wait for Thomas and pull him back, I would bet, but only on the first one or two mountain stages."
Horner also said he wouldn't be surprised if Thomas takes yellow early on.
"Then we get to see if his weight, training and overall fitness is the same as last year when they hit the big mountains."
The best of the rest
For Horner, like many others, Team Ineos' recent record of six wins in the past seven Tours lifts the British team to the top of the odds tables, or, as Horner says, the team is a 'five-star' favourite with two riders who right now realistically look like favourites.
Among the other possible contenders, however, Horner pointed to 2014 Tour de France winner Vincenzo Nibali, the Bahrain-Merida rider Horner beat in 2013 to take his Vuelta title.
"Nibali is coming from the Giro. He had a good Giro, but can he hold the form?" Horner asked. "It’s just difficult to see a guy coming from one Grand Tour to the next. It can be complicated, but Nibali’s won all three so you have to keep the door open for him. I rode against him many times in my career, and I have to believe he’s a threat. You certainly wouldn’t want to give him any room to get away and gain some time."
Trek-Segafredo's Richie Porte could be a threat, but Horner said he doesn't believe the Australian has a team that can ride the front, and Porte will be isolated in the mountains.
"And he has a problem going downhill," Horner said. "So I wouldn't give him any room, and I have a lot of respect for Richie Porte, but to win the Tour, that's a bit complicated. I wouldn't want to give him two minutes, that's for sure. So you have to have him in there as a four-star favourite, maybe not five, but a four-star favourite."
Trek-Segafredo's Richie Porte at the 2019 Tour of California (Getty Images)
Jakob Fuglsang, the Astana leader who won Criterium du Dauphine earlier this month, is also on Horner's radar.
"Fuglsang has never been a Grand Tour rider yet, but he has shown some beautiful form occasionally," Horner said. "I remember when he was teammates with Nibali in 2014, he was – wow – he was really good there in the Tour that year. Then he started crashing and that form just disappeared. I think he crashed two or three times. But that year really showed he can be a Grand Tour rider.
"This year he’s ridden so well, winning Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Dauphine, he’s got to be a five-star favourite, at least four and a half," Horner said. "I’d put him above Porte by at least half a star. I wouldn’t let him go anywhere. He’s got a strong team, and he’s clearly shown that he can climb."
Movistar's Nairo Quintana, who has won both the Giro and the Vuelta and finished three times on the Tour podium, may not be perfectly suited for the Tour, Horner said, but he should never be counted out, especially if Movistar learn to have some patience with the diminutive Colombian.
"I think in the past they just raced him too early in the climbs," Horner said. "They need to get through the first flat days, and then when they get in the mountains he’s got to get two or three days into the mountains before he starts trying to win the Tour. You've got to have some patience and wait for that last week when guys are fatigued and then try to light them up."
And Horner said to keep an eye on some lesser-known riders to come out of the woodwork, adding that he expects "one of the French kids" to rise to the occasion.
"Either [Thibaut] Pinot or [Romain] Bardet comes out," he said. "Bardet’s had a quiet season so far, but clearly he is a Grand Tour rider, and he has to be in the mix – another four-star favourite."
Thibaut Pinot finishes stage 7 at Criterium du Dauphine (Bettini Photo)
There is never any shortage of drama in the Tour de France once the racing starts and the unexpected takes over. But one place Horner said he'll be keeping a keen eye on throughout the Tour is the EF Education First bus as the team brings Rigoberto Uran and Tejay van Garderen, two possible GC contenders.
"Uran is clearly a Grand Tour rider and has shown it, but will he get the proper support from the team?" Horner wondered of the Colombian who was second overall in 2017.
"That will be interesting, because I've never seen Tejay on the front – ever – riding for a teammate. If you could show me video of it then maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t believe I’ve seen it – and for good reason. Tejay has ridden well at Grand Tours, just not recently. But he’s on good form now."
The problem for Uran, as Horner sees it, is that van Garderen, who was fifth at the Tour de France in 2012 and 2014, just got second at Dauphine, so he could be thinking that he can get another top-five result at the Tour.
"If there’s an issue on one of the flat stages, is Uran going to have Tejay dropping back to help him too? If he’s a GC rider in the mountains, maybe he’s got Tejay there to support him, maybe Tejay’s riding for himself because he just got second at Dauphine. You gotta believe right now that if he got second at Dauphine, he’s thinking, 'I’m going into the Tour for myself.' There’s some drama there."
There will no doubt be plenty of drama for Horner to report on for NBC as cycling's biggest show gets ready to raise the curtain in Brussels. Horner said one of his favourite things about the Tour is that it's one of the few times during the long season – along with the Spring Classics – when everyone is on form.
"That’s the only time of year when you go and talk to riders and they’re not telling you that they’re just using this race for training," he said.
"I always liked showing up at the Tour gala and they’re doing the big presentation for all the riders, and they’re telling you what to expect, what you can do and what you can’t do, and you look at all the other riders and they’re all leaned out, they’re all suntanned, and they’re all ready to race."