Team Ineos manager Dave Brailsford sat centre stage between Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal as they faced questions from a packed hotel room in Brussels less than 24 hours from the start of the Tour de France.
With Chris Froome unable to target a fifth Tour de France victory after his crash at the Criterium du Dauphine, Thomas and Bernal share team leadership and carry hopes of another overall victory for the British super-team, with Brailsford confident he can keep any internal rivalry under control.
Brailsford updated the media on Froome's return home from the hospital but focused on the here and now, with little time for nostalgia at the start of the Tour de France.
"It's a big disappointment not to have Chris Froome here but sport is sport. We have a new baseline and we move forward. With these two guys couldn't want for a better team. We're excited to get going," Brailsford said.
The Team Ineos press conference was open to written media and television crews with a second session reserved for just written media.
David Walsh of the Sunday Times is back at the Tour de France this year and when the television cameras where turned off, he asked Brailsford if any of the Team Ineos had a TUE for the Tour de France as Bradley had done for the asthma drug triamcinolone when he won he won the 2012 Tour de France with Team Sky. He also asked about how the team will manage having two leaders in Thomas and Bernal.
Brailsford first answer was very short, his second much longer.
"To my knowledge, nobody has got a TUE but we can ask the doctor afterwards if you like, to be honest, and open about that," Brailsford said, the question somewhat deflating what had been a relaxed atmosphere in the hotel conference room.
"In terms of leadership, when you've got guys of this calibre there's always a debate of what will happen. We start from what happened in the past, think what will happen this year and figured it out from there. Geraint won last year, he has huge experience, huge knowledge and poise in this event. Egan is at the other end of that scale. He rode last year and won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse with poise for his age."
Asked if the thought 22-year-old Bernal was ready to win the Tour de France, Brailsford replied: "There's physical age and mental age, and if you're ready, you're ready. I say he's ready."
Balancing both of their ambitions is a matter of trust and communication.
"Our role as management comes down to if both recognize it's good to ride together because it optimizes their chances, that's better than having tension between them," Brailsford suggested.
"It's also a question of trust. I find there has to be a degree of trust so that nobody does anything unexpected. If you get that, the race looks after itself. Clarity is also important for the other guys in the team and their roles. When things get separated, as in past, it gets difficult for how the team dynamic works. It's a big a negative as for two leaders, so coherence is important. Trust is fundamental.
I think their relationship is very good. They're both on form and get on together team. All the team have experience, they know how to talk to each other; there's no bullshit. That put us in a position to follow that approach."
Brailsford was perhaps referring to the tension between Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome during the 2012 Tour de France when Froome attacked Wiggins while he was in yellow, keen to win the stage instead of riding for his teammate. That left scares in the team and created a tense relationship until Wiggins retired.
Thomas: I'm not a one-hit-wonder
Thomas is more laid back than Wiggins and perhaps less determined than Froome. He praised Bernal but made it clear he wants a second Tour de France victory after his perfect ride of 2018.
"I've got nothing to prove to anyone. If I end up as a one-hit-wonder, it's still a pretty good hit to have. A lot of guys just dream of riding the Tour de France. I have won it," Thomas said, insisting his form is good despite crashing out of the Tour de Suisse, with a blow to the head leaving him with a cut above his right eye and signs of fatigue on his face.
"I'm feeling good, my training was good even if it was different to racing, I'm in a good place," Thomas suggested. "This year's race, with the big days in the mountains towards the end should help."
Thomas named Simon Yates, Jakob Fuglsang, Richie Porte, Vincenzo Nibali and the Movistar duo Nairo Quintana and Mille Landa as his big rivals.
Bernal is a teammate, not a potential rival.
"We're not rivals," Thomas made clear. "I actually like his attitude. He's a nice guy, he's got morals. I don't know if that's a Colombian or Latin American thing but he's honest I can feel his sense of respect. He also speaks English really well and we can communicate well. That helps too."
Some are hoping the absence of Froome, doubts about Thomas' form and Bernal lack of Tour de France experience, will weaken Team Ineos grip on the Tour de France. Thomas is hoping for the exact opposite.
"I hope not. Hopefully one of us wins and it's an uneventful race," Thomas joked deadpan.
"When Froomey is here he's one of the greatest riders of all time. He's got respect in the peloton. It's a big shame he's not here but it what it is. It's up to us now, we've got a super strong team, we all know what to do. I don't think we'll change tactics very much, rather than 3 or 4 riders in the final we might only have three riders. We'll see."
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