All eyes on Bernal as mountains loom

After a relatively smooth first half of the Tour, Egan Bernal will have pressure to move as the race tilts into the first major climbs this weekend.

Photo: Getty Images

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With the Tour de France poised to tilt upward, all eyes now turn to Egan Bernal.

The Team Ineos star has been discretely picking his way through the first half of the Tour de France. In just his second start, the 22-year-old Colombian has avoided the crashes, mishaps, and splits that have cost many of his direct rivals. With much of the hype surrounding defending champion and teammate Geraint Thomas, Bernal has been a bit under the radar.

All that is set to change this week. With a decisive individual time trial and the first major mountain climbs looming in the Pyrenees, all eyes will be on Bernal who’s poised third overall at 1:16 back.

“We have to be happy with how the first 10 days have gone,” Bernal said during Tuesday’s rest day. “They’ve been very hard, so to be second and third overall, now we are in ideal position to see how things turn out. We have to stay very focused. We cannot take anything for granted. There is still a lot of Tour ahead of us.”

Bernal’s accelerated Tour de France development will hit full-throttle in the coming days. With four-time winner Chris Froome sitting this Tour out, Bernal was elevated to co-captaincy along with Thomas. The Tour’s first major climbs are on the horizon, and Bernal will have pressure to move.

So far, Bernal has been playing the loyal lieutenant and saying all the right things.

“The most important thing is not that I win or Geraint Thomas wins, but that Ineos wins,” Bernal said. “We have that very clear. There’s no jealousy. We have to win the Tour.”

Ineos has done an admirable job protecting Bernal both on and off the bike. Since his arrival last year to the WorldTour, Bernal has been getting his chances, and the young Colombian has delivered beyond expectations.

After his spectacular debut WorldTour season, Bernal has been even more impressive this season. He won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse after a training crash pushed him out of the Giro d’Italia.

“This year I am a little more confident,” Bernal said. “Last year everything was new for me and I was a little bit scared. Now I know what’s ahead of me. I am well-supported by the team and this gives me even more confidence.”

So far, Ineos has been doing a spectacular job protecting both Thomas and Bernal to keep them right at the top of the leaderboard. Ineos brass has found the right balance of nurturing Bernal’s talent and giving him room to move.

“I feel comfortable on the team,” Bernal said. “No one puts pressure on me. I’m only 22, and I’m in the most beautiful race in the world, but I can only go day to day.”

After surviving the first half of the Tour in good position, it will be interesting to see how Bernal rides through the Pyrenees and Alps. On paper, the string of high-altitude climbs favors him and his Colombian compatriots perhaps more than anyone else in the peloton. Unlike Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First), however, Bernal has not lost any significant time.

Egan Bernal practiced on his time trial machine on the Tour’s first rest day. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Before flying free in the mountains, however, comes the 27.2km individual time trial at Pau. Ineos’s balancing act will be put under pressure in the coming days. Bernal admits he will be on the back foot against the clock, and it could be Thomas who could gain the most.

“The time trials are important and I am going to lose time, so it’s a question of trying to limit my losses,” he said. “The specialists will take time on me. We are going to try to do the best we can.”

It’s hard to say how well Bernal will ride. In his Tour debut last year, Bernal gave up nearly two minutes to stage-winner Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) in a hillier, longer route than what’s ahead this week. The context last year was also very different than what Bernal will face this week. Last year, Bernal was not taking risks or riding for placement. On Friday, the yellow jersey will be on the line.

Bernal could lose a minute or so to Thomas, but he should do well against his other direct GC rivals.

“I am going to try to lose as little time as possible,” he said. “It will be a half hour of suffering, going all-out. There are some specialists that will take time out on me. That’s just the way it is.

“We are going to keep racing the same way, and then we will see where things stand after the time trial,” he continued. “We have to stay focused on every moment. Now the mountains are coming up, and they will be the hardest stages still ahead of us.”

Many believe the time is now for Bernal. Thursday’s preamble across the Pyrenees and Friday’s time trial will be the final roadblocks before the Tour’s first major climbs.

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