On the second rest day of the 2019 Tour de France in Nimes on Monday, Team Ineos seemed slightly out of their comfort zone, not knowing quite what to say in the unfamiliar position of having two leaders and no yellow jersey.
Bernal attacked the yellow jersey group a couple of kilometres from the top of the Col du Galibier – the last of three major ascents – and by the time he'd descended into Valloire had gained 32 seconds on the rest of the top 10.
The Colombian, who'd started the day fifth overall, 2:02 down on Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), moved up to second at 1:30. In the process, he overtook Thomas, the 2018 champion, who is now third at 1:35.
On the rest day, Bernal had hinted about using his inferior position to go on the attack early in order to put pressure on their rivals, and he suggested such a move might cause hesitation in the group behind. In the end, it did, although it was curious to see Thomas himself put an end to that hesitation when he attacked inside the final kilometre of the Galibier.
Thomas was caught before the summit and promptly set about following the wheels again, but there's no doubt his attack sparked a reaction from the other contenders, causing a surge in pace that effectively limited Bernal's gains.
"We wanted a hard pace, and unfortunately we were running out of guys and it didn't seem quite hard enough, so the call was made for Egan to jump and hopefully that would kick it off, but it didn't really," Thomas told reporters in Valloire.
"[Enric] Mas rode and then they were just riding tempo again. That’s why I had a little dig to see if anything would happen, but they obviously followed me over the top."
Bernal, for his part, said he had no problem with Thomas' counter-attack, echoing Ineos manager Dave Brailsford, who argued on the rest day that there were two races at play. On the one hand, there's the battle between the pre-race favourites in the tightly packed top six, but then that's redundant unless they make the going hard enough to dismantle Alaphilippe.
"I think yes [it was a good idea]. We need to gain time on Alaphilippe," Bernal told reporters in the pouring rain. "I don't care what happened with G. He's my teammate, and we need to gain time on Alaphilippe.
"You never know how the other guys are feeling, and if you make the race hard maybe at some point Alaphilippe can be dropped. I think we did a really good race today."
While Thomas said the "call was made" for Bernal to attack, Bernal himself revealed that it was Thomas who'd encouraged him to go on the attack.
"He asked me how I was feeling, and I said, 'Really good', and he said, 'OK, you try to attack to move the race', and I did. He attacked from behind to try to come with me, but in the end the other guys came in his wheel and he stayed behind them," Bernal said.
"These are decisions you have to take in the race, and it depends from day to day how you're feeling. I have to say thanks to G for being honest today."
The balance of power at Team Ineos has now surely swung in Bernal’s favour. By the most simplistic measure, the overall standings have him as the team's best-placed rider, but there's also the sense that he's currently the stronger of the two in the mountains.
The 32 seconds Bernal gained on Thomas in Valloire are added to the 28 he gained on the Col du Tourmalet and 31 at Prat d’Albis. In the space of three mountain stages, he has put a minute and a half into the 2018 champion. What's more, Thomas, from what we can understand, has let Bernal ride away twice in a row, only to react himself later on
Bernal declined to announce himself 'the' leader at Team Ineos and denied that he was now favourite for the title. He argued Alaphilippe was still in the driving seat, the Frenchman having shown some signs of weakness when Thomas' attack opened things up at the top of the Galibier before closing the 20-second gap on the descent.
"I’m very happy," Bernal said. "The truth is that it’s always good for morale to gain time, and I gained some important time on Alaphilippe today. We’re still second, but we gained time on him, so that’s good.
"But I’m second and Alaphilippe is still top. You have to accept it, he’s been stronger throughout the race as a whole. The way he attacked in the first week was amazing – he was on another level. In the mountains we thought he was not a pure climber, but we've not been able to dislodge him yet, so he's the strongest. If he carries on like this it will be impossible to beat him."
The Alpine finale to this gripping Tour de France continues on Friday and Saturday with two shorter stages that once again take in some fearsome climbs that continue the high-altitude theme. The mighty Col de l’Iseran (2,770m) is on the menu on Friday, ahead of the summit finish at Tignes, while Saturday features the interminable ascent to Val Thorens.
"The truth is I was feeling better and better the higher we went," said Bernal, who hails from Zipaquira, 2,600m above sea level. "I don’t know. Anything can happen. I think I'm up there, but winning the Tour is complicated."
As for Thomas, he also said he felt good. Indeed, his attack suggested he had the legs, but it was the second consecutive time he has allowed Bernal to go up the road, only to react himself shortly after.
"I knew it would be hard to do anything to drop Alaphilippe today, but it was still a big day and there are two more big days to come, so there’s a lot of racing to be had," he said.
What’s the next move? Is Thomas now the wildcard who has the freedom to attack early to put the pressure on the others? And will that in turn see the balance of power swing back the other way?
The British team have won from the front many times before. It will be fascinating to see how they play this one from here.
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