Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) may not be the red-hot favourite at this point in the Tour de France or the rider who has impressed the most in the mountains, but only a fool would write the defending champion off at this point.
Despite his nagging back issues and the almost daily questions over his form and that of his team, the Colombian is still nestled nicely in second place overall as the Tour prepares to exit its first rest day. There are far sterner tests ahead with daunting days in the Alps to come but there is an argument that by sitting second, just 21 seconds off Primož Roglič’s yellow jersey, Bernal is in a perfect position.
He and his team have no responsibility to control the race for the next week as the next range of climbs loom ahead, while Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma squad have already burned plenty of matches in their bid to end Ineos and Team Sky’s long run at the Tour.
On the first rest day of this year’s Tour, Bernal and his squad took the rare opportunity to not organise a press conference, even in a socially-distanced environment or online like most of their rivals. The 23-year-old still provided insight into his mindset when asked by his trusted press officer if he would have taken second overall at this point in the race when the Tour departed Nice a week ago.
“For sure it’s the biggest race in the world, with the best riders in the world. To be second is a big thing for us. We need to be fighting to win the race, but at the moment we should be happy with the position that we are in,” Bernal said.
Bernal has visibly dug deep at times in the race. In the two stages in the Pyrenees, he was distanced by his rivals at times but he fought back on stage 8 and then looked marginally better the following day when the race made the back-breaking ascent of the Col de Marie Blanque.
Ineos Grenadiers has not been the superpower in the first week, but they were in the same position in last year’s race, only for Bernal’s brilliance to surface just when his rivals began to wane under the strain of three weeks of effort. For Bernal, this race is all about the long game and if he should rise to the top step in Paris then all the troubles from the Critérium du Dauphiné and the opening stages of the Tour will be quickly forgotten. For all the work displayed by Roglič and his Jumbo-Visma team, they’ve still not put anything like a significant lead into the defending champion.
“I think that it has been a good race for us. We are second on the GC, a few seconds behind Roglič and we have a really hard race in front of us. We should be happy with how the team has performed so far. It’s a 21-day race and we need to be careful with the efforts," said Bernal, who was leading the Best Young rider classification on the rest day.
"I think that I’ve managed myself well and I’m just waiting for my opportunity. I’m trying to [do] what’s best for me and so far I’ve felt good and I hope to keep this performance until the finish.”
Before reaching more mountains, the peloton must take on the crosswinds that are expected on stage 10 from Île d'Oléron Le Château-d'Oléron to Île de Ré Saint-Martin-de-Ré, with the wind expected to create chaos and echelons in the final.
Bernal though doesn’t seem phased. “Every team knows that tomorrow will be a hard race. It will be stressful and there may be echelons. I have one of the best teams for this kind of stage."
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