Despite getting the green light to ride his 'own race' on the final climb to Prat d'Albis on the final Pyrenean stage of the Tour de France on Sunday, Egan Bernal insisted Geraint Thomas is still Team Ineos' 'primary leader' ahead of the final week.
Thomas, who lost time on the Col du Tourmalet on Saturday, sensed he was still below his best at Prat d'Albis, and Bernal was given free rein to go after the rampant Thibaut Pinot. The Colombian ended up finishing half a minute clear of Thomas, though the 2018 champion did rally with a late acceleration and ended up regretting his earlier call.
The Pyrenees have put Ineos in a problematic and somewhat unfamiliar position. They have two riders in the top five but the rest of the team are nowhere near their dominating best. In terms of leadership, Thomas is second overall at 1:35 from Julian Alaphilippe, while Bernal sits fifth at 2:02.
The fact that Thomas is in front and is the defending champion would suggest leadership lies with him, but then Bernal, despite his inexperience, looks far the stronger climber, putting a minute into his teammate over the weekend. Which one do they back?
"The primary leader is still G," Bernal stated at Ineos' rest-day press conference in Nimes on Monday, using the nickname of the man sat to his right. "We're going to get behind him."
However, he made it clear that he won't simply be riding subserviently in front of Thomas through the Alps.
"It's easy when there's very good communication in the team. On Sunday, G was very honest, and he told me he maybe didn't have the best legs. I think that's also good for the race, for us as a team. If I'm up the road, other riders will maybe hesitate because there's an Ineos rider up the road and maybe they'll be reluctant to drag him to the line. So it's also strategic."
It's easy to forget Bernal is just 22 years of age, given how effortlessly he has assumed the role of Tour de France contender. His extraordinary debut 12 months ago saw him supporting Thomas and Chris Froome deep into the final week, and this year he feels he has stepped up both in terms of his physical strength and his status in the team.
"Physically, I'm a little stronger this year. Last year I was only 21, so I think the maturity counts for something," he said.
"It's really different for me this year because I have the support of the team. Last year I was helping G and Froomey and now I'm one of the leaders of the team. It's different but it's nice also because I'm feeling good and I think I'm having a good race. I'm just 22 and I'm top five in the Tour de France. I'm really happy with that.
"It's a big responsibility. It's the responsibility of a whole Tour. So when Geraint gives me that opportunity, it also weighs on your shoulders, because you know you've earned it but you also have to respond."
Bernal, despite his youth, cut a composed figure in front of the glare of the world's media at the biggest race in the world, answering questions in Spanish and English. He seems remarkably relaxed for someone who has Tour de France victory within sight at the age of 22, borne out by his revelation that he doesn't study the profile of a stage until the day itself.
"The truth is I don't look far ahead. I practically only look at the stage that morning, in the bus, when they do the briefing," he said. "I don't like to be looking at what stage is coming up, what a certain climb is like on the final day. That's how I see it."
Neither did he want to look ahead to Paris on Sunday. Asked directly which position he saw himself in at the end of the race, he said: "I don't know, I don't know. For the moment, I don't know, I'm not thinking about it.
"The Alps are still to come. There are five days of very hard racing, and I simply want to stay calm and concentrated.
"Anything can happen. For sure, Pinot is very strong, and I think he'll finish on the podium in Paris, but we have five riders within 40 seconds of each other, so anything can happen."
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