Team Sky eye possible Tour de France support role for Bernal after Giro

Egan Bernal’s Grand Tour program could, possibly, see the young Colombian tackle both the Giro d’Italia and the Tour de France in 2019.

However, as Team Sky’s sports director Nico Portal says, whilst Bernal is 100 percent certain to ride the Giro d’Italia and lead the team there, the question of whether Bernal rides the Tour de France for a second time this July will not even be raised until after the Italian Grand Tour is done and dusted.

And, rather than form part of a ‘trident’ of leaders, Bernal’s role in the Tour would not be as a protected rider, Portal insisted.

“The idea is that he does the Giro, and then afterwards, in June, see how he’s going,” Portal told Cyclingnews during the Volta a Catalunya, where Bernal is currently third overall. “I’m sure he’d like to do the Tour, who wouldn’t? But as a leader - I don’t think so.”

A story published in Gazzetta dello Sport last week suggested Bernal might ride the Tour, but the article notably failed to make it clear what implications that might have on the Colombian’s participation in the Giro d’Italia.

Asked by Cyclingnews, Portal cleared that up: Bernal might, and he emphasised that word heavily, do both Giro and Tour.

“There’s sometimes a lot of speculation, and we haven’t even started the Giro,” Portal said with a wry laugh. “And the thing is, he’s very young to be doing both. So even if it’s certainly possible he does the Tour, I don’t think he would be a leader there.

“More than the physical side, I think it’s very tough mentally," Portlan said. "When I was a rider, I remember you could have done five more stages of a Grand Tour on a physical point of view. But what kills you is the mental side of it, because you’d go home after a Grand Tour, still saying to yourself, ‘Right when I get home I’m going to do this, this and this,’ and then you get up the next morning and you’re absolutely dead.

“So the idea is that he does the Giro, flat-out as leader, and then afterwards, in June, we see how he’s going. I’m sure he’d like to do the Tour. Who wouldn’t? But as a leader - I don’t think so. 

"But it’s like if we were to say now, maybe Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas will do the Vuelta. First let’s get the Giro out of the way. Then, and only then, will we talk about the Tour.”

Portal recognised that in Bernal’s case, Paris-Nice had represented a major step up for the young Colombian, and not only because he won it.

“Paris-Nice was where he really impressed so far this year,” Portal said.

“It’s been ‘our’ race for the last few years [Team Sky have won six of the past eight editions - ed.] and I said to him, 'Look Egan, if you can get through the echelons and get through the time trial, this can be a race for you.’

"There wasn’t any pressure. We also had Kwiato’ [Michal Kwiatkowski] there, but he won it. So he’s gained a lot of confidence in himself, and that has helped the team gain confidence in him as well.”

Portal is confident, too, that Froome, who has had a tough time in the Volta with an early crash, will be much closer to the thick of the action soon.

"Chris was so keen to start the year that in Colombia he trained really hard, wanted to get a lot of ‘volume’ training in and then he felt very tired," said Portal, who has been directing Froome since 2013 when Portal was the youngest director at the Tour de France.

“He’s on track. It’s all fine," Portal said. "His weight’s fine for this time of year. He’s been helping out with Egan and teaching the riders a bit about positioning and so on in the last 10 kilometres of stages, how to be up there with the sprinters but not too far ahead, stuff like that. He’s helping out the riders of the future generation, you cold say.”

Froome’s motivation is steadily rising, Portal said.

“It’s normally now, in the next two weeks, that suddenly something switches on inside his head. This year I think in the WorldTour races like these, seeing people like Egan and Nairo [Quintana] going so well, this gives him an extra spark.”

As for the Volta a Catalunya, Portal said he could only congratulate overall leader and likely winner Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana) for the way he raced on La Molina when he won stage 4 and took the overall lead.

“There was a moment behind when everybody was looking at each other and Lopez got 10 seconds, opened up that gap and that was it, over," Portal said. “Things could have changed a lot in Valter 2000 the day before if the last three or four kilometres had been a bit steeper."

Portal said the tricky final circuit in Barcelona, which includes eight trips up the Montjuic climb, could yet provide the opportunity for Bernal to try and topple Lopez on Sunday, but it would be difficult.

"The hardest stages are behind us," he said. "Montjuic is a very special, tough circuit, that of course, something can happen. Just on the physical side, Montjuic is hard to create differences. It’s more one where tactics or a crash can change things.

“In any case, we’re satisfied with how we’ve done with Egan recently. We’ve won Paris-Nice with a young team, and we’ve picked up a lot of momentum in these teams. So we’ll try and do something on Sunday.”

Every year Froome attacks on the Montjuic, almost as a tradition, and Portal, whilst not saying it is sure to happen, confirms that “Froome’s role could be to try and get ahead a little to harden things up, and that’s something he can do.

”This is like a game of chess: You move your pieces, but the moment, if it comes, will be hard to predict.”

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Alasdair Fotheringham

Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The IndependentThe GuardianProCycling, The Express and Reuters.