Tour de France 2019: Why Team Ineos’s move to make Egan Bernal co-leader with Geraint Thomas matters
The build-up to 2019 Tour de France has been overshadowed by some high-profile crashes – Chris Froome at the Dauphine, Geraint Thomas at the Tour de Suisse, Tom Dumoulin at the Giro d’Italia – but it was an incident during a training ride in the hills around Bogata, Colombia, which might shape this year’s race most profoundly of all.
Egan Bernal broke his collarbone in the fall near his hometown at the beginning of May and was ruled out of the Giro. Team Ineos had been planning to give the fabulously talented 22-year-old a chance to go for glory at the Giro, but instead sent a callow team to Italy and shifted Bernal to the Tour de France, the race where he sacrificed himself so impressively last year as the traction engine dragging Froome and Thomas through the Alps and Pyrenees.
But for Bernal, swapping the Giro for the Tour may yet turn out to be a blessing in disguise. If Team Sky taught us anything over the past decade it’s that a leader is only as strong as the legs and lungs around him, and on reflection Bernal would not have had adequate support to win the Giro anyway. He will at the Tour, however, and the announcement last week that he will co-lead Ineos alongside Thomas has only reinforced Bernal’s status as a serious contender to win the yellow jersey.
It wasn’t a decision Ineos needed to make. Even in Froome’s absence, they could have kept Bernal as the second card to play, and as reigning champion it is fair to assume Thomas was expecting to be sole leader with Bernal as a back-up rider, protected from any heavy lifting in the opening week just in case something should go wrong.
But after Bernal’s impressive win at June’s Tour de Suisse – so often a reliable indicator of who will shine in July – Dave Brailsford and his management team took the decision to give Bernal full freedom of the road, and perhaps to avoid any awkward mid-race usurping, as Thomas did to Froome last year.
It means Thomas will not get everything his own way, and will race in his first Tour de France since winning it alongside a relative rookie riding only his second Tour. Perhaps most significantly of all, it means Thomas cannot expect Bernal to pull him back into contention should he be suffering when the roads climb high into the clouds. The safety blanket that wrapped Frooome and Thomas so securely last year has been taken away.
Thomas and Bernal get on well (the Colombian now speaks good English) and both are similarly cool characters without any great ego, and as a duo they will be just as curious as the Froome-Thomas dynamic. Nothing tests a cycling relationship quite like the bewitching glow of the maillot jaune.
Their power dynamic could be tilted by the mountain organisers have inserted into the first week. The stage 6 finish on La Planche des Belles Filles will be the first stage for the general classification contenders to puff out their chests and stake a claim for the yellow jersey, and it is likely to give us the first real insight into who is in the best shape to win this race, both from Ineos and their rivals.
The move to officially install Bernal as co-leader can be viewed as largely symbolic – Thomas won the Tour having never been handed that label. Yet it gives the young Colombian the authority to command, the power to plot, and the licence to attack. It will be fascinating to watch how he uses it.