According to their rivals, Team Ineos are already riding this year's Tour de France as if they're in the lead, but on stage 13 the defending champions will have the chance to stamp their authority over the race in the 27.2km time trial around Pau.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) deservedly leads the overall classification as it ventures deeper into the Pyrenees, but the consensus is that it's only a matter of time before Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal make their play and usurp the Frenchman. The Team Ineos pair sit second and third overall, 1:12 and 1:16 behind the French rider in the maillot jaune, but that gap could conceivably plummet within the next 24 hours.
Alaphilippe, on his day, can pull a ride out of nowhere, and he certainly has a respectable time trial in his legs given his current condition, but against the Ineos machine far better time triallists have been put to the sword.
Stage 12 of the Tour de France saw the race take baby steps into the mountains with two climbs coming well before the finish in Bagneres De-Bigorre. It was the calm before the storm, with the GC riders tapping out a steady tempo in readiness for the time trial on Friday and the double-header of mountain stages that are on this weekend's horizon.
"We expected some attacks on the climb, especially with the gaps being quite small, but everyone rode steady and nothing happened," Thomas told reporters after his compatriot Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) had won from the day's early break.
"Now it's about the next big three days. Everyone is mindful that the next three days are going to be big for the GC, and they're waiting for that. I'm looking forward to tomorrow. I've seen the course a few times, and I'll see it again in the morning.
"It's been quite hard, waiting and waiting, but tomorrow I'll get to go all in," Thomas said. "It's going to be a big day. I'll see the course again in the morning, but I've ridden it already three times. I like it. It's fast, and it should be hard. It's going to be a big day."
Thomas is a potential stage winner for the time trial, with Mitchelton-Scott's Matt White tipping the defending Tour champion as the favourite for the stage. With Rohan Dennis' surprise departure from the race, and both Chris Froome (Team Ineos) and Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) at home nursing injuries, Thomas certainly starts as a credible candidate for the win.
"I'll go all out and see where that puts me," he said. "It would be great to win the stage, but Wout van Aert is my favourite."
Beneath Thomas' calm exterior, however, is the knowledge that his biggest rival for this year's race could be his own teammate, Bernal. The Colombian won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse this season and was rewarded with co-leadership on the eve of the Tour. He and Thomas have swapped seconds here and there throughout the race, but stage 13 will go some small way to deciding their true roles in the race.
Alaphilippe's position could be key, however. If he performs as he did in the Roanne time trial in the Dauphiné and makes the top 10, he could remain in yellow and thus deny an Ineos rider the protection that comes – internally at least – with the yellow jersey.
"At the end of the day, it's a big day for GC, full stop," Thomas replied when Cyclingnews asked about the dynamic between himself and Bernal ahead of Friday's race of truth.
"We'll both go and try and get the best result that we can. If we can stay in a great position that would be good, but ideally we'll both still be up there. The more cards that we have to play with, the better."
For the team's lead directeur sportif, Nicolas Portal, the plan is for Thomas and Bernal to ride their races and not fixate on each other. There are other riders in this race, after all, and occupying their energies with just one rival – albeit within their own team – could lead to mistakes out on the road.
"The time trial maybe suits Geraint better than it does Egan, so maybe you could expect Geraint to finish a bit higher on the rankings, but Egan has done some really good time trials this year – both in Paris-Nice and then at Suisse. The goal for both riders is to go as quick as they can," Portal told Cyclingnews.
"They just need to concentrate on their own rides. There's no point in them racing against each other or someone on GC. Then you make a mistake. They just need to keep on their track."
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