Who's the boss? The five seconds Egan Bernal gained on Geraint Thomas when the peloton split on the drag to the line at Épernay on stage 3 won't decide the hierarchy at Team Ineos, far less the outcome of the Tour de France itself, but it felt like a microcosm of their contrasting approaches to this race all the same.
The short, sharp haul up the Rue de Coteaux was all about momentum. Bernal, fresh from Tour de Suisse victory last month, has it in spades. Thomas, who endured a truncated build-up, is a man still in search of it.
After a rugged finale that fizzed through champagne country, lone escapee Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was already celebrating stage victory and a stint in the maillot jaune by the time the reduced chasing peloton hit the 350m kick towards the line.
Thomas was well positioned towards the front of that elite group when the climb began, but as the gradient bit, he sat back down into the saddle, unable to hold the wheel in front as searing accelerations from men like Michael Matthews and Jasper Stuyven stretched the group to breaking point and men like Sonny Colbrelli moved past him.
Together with Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Bernal was the lone overall contender to keep pace with the sprinters and puncheurs in the final reckoning. The Colombian came home 12th on the stage, 26 seconds down on Alaphilippe, while Thomas was the next rider across the line, a further 5 seconds back. In the overall standings, Bernal lies 6th overall, 40 seconds down on Alaphilippe, while Thomas is now 7th at 45 seconds.
After the stage, Bernal and Thomas warmed down side-by-side on the rollers outside the Ineos team bus, though at that point, both men were unaware that the commissaires would assign a five-second gap between them on the stage after reviewing the finish line footage. Bernal, mind, was safe in the knowledge that he had not missed a beat in the frantic dash towards the line by finishing ahead of all the contenders bar Pinot.
"I didn't really know what was going on behind me, so I couldn't see where the other GC guys were," Bernal said. "All I can say for sure is that it was a really hard day."
Bernal was prominent throughout the final portion of the stage. When Alaphilippe uncorked his winning move on the ramps of the Côte de Mutigny with 16km remaining, the youngster was close at hand and considered trying to match him with an eye to nabbing the time bonus at the summit, though he soon thought better of it.
"Alaphilippe was really impressive. I'd tried to follow him with a view to going for the time bonuses, but it was impossible. I think everyone has suffered a lot today," said Bernal. "After a TTT, it's always hard the next day, and it was made more difficult because we had a tailwind all day so the pace was really fast, and the final few climbs were really steep. All those things combined meant it was a very hard day."
Thomas: Short, steep climbs aren't necessarily what I love
Two yards to Bernal's left, Thomas was soft-pedalling the afternoon's exertions out of his legs on the rollers, and the Welshman confessed that he had felt more comfortable in the team time trial the previous day than he had on the succession of hills that punctuated the vineyards between Reims and Épernay.
"I felt really good yesterday, then today, I wasn't like dancing up the climbs, but I was ok," Thomas said. "I didn't want to do more than what had to be done. I was aware that there were still bonus seconds up for grabs, but I saw Alaphilippe and some of the guys up there and decided to leave it to them, really, and just get through as best as possible.
"I knew I wouldn't have had the legs to go for the bonus sprints, or if I'd tried it would have been 100 percent maximum effort and I wasn't looking for that."
As defending champion, and with Chris Froome absent through injury, Thomas might ordinarily have expected sole leadership at Team Ineos this time around, but Bernal's sparkling recent form ensured that the British squad designated him as co-captain ahead of the Grand Départ in Brussels.
The road will eventually formalise the internal hierarchy at Ineos at some point on this Tour, though that decision will likely arrive at high altitude, as it did last year, when Thomas was elevated from his role as Froome's deputy after claiming back-to-back stages in the high Alps. The seconds Thomas lost to Bernal at Épernay are indicative of current form but in no way a confirmation of their future roles.
"Today was a punchy day. I had sort of limited racing coming in here, but I was OK so that's a positive," Thomas said. "I think I felt OK really considering that short, steep climbs aren't necessarily what I love."
The rather longer summit meeting at La Planche des Belles Filles (7km at 8.7%) on Thursday will surely reveal more.
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