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The sight of Egan Bernal swarmed by the yellow livery of four Jumbo-Visma riders on the steep slopes of a summit finish is not a sight that anyone is used to seeing. But that’s what happened Sunday on the Grand Colombier showdown at the Tour de l’Ain.
Last week’s three-day French race saw Team Ineos and Jumbo-Visma both bring out its heavy artillery in their first major clash ahead of the Tour de France next month. The weekend’s two climbing stages saw Ineos outnumbered and outperformed as Bernal was left isolated to fend off repeated attacks from a number of Jumbo-Visma riders.
The young Colombian proved tenacious to the last, putting in a late acceleration to try to snatch victory on Sunday’s final stage. However, Bernal was easily rounded and distanced by Jumbo-Visma’s captain Primož Roglič on the steep ramp to the finish line – a telling symbol of how their two teams had fared throughout what could be a significant preview of the Tour.
Team Ineos threw all they had at it, but it was Roglič who took the overall, with two of his Jumbo-Visma teammates also in the top five. Meanwhile, Ineos was left with Bernal in second-place and a host of questions to answer having found themselves on the ropes in stage 2 and then imploding on stage 3.
While Bernal had the legs and level-headedness to go the distance while under the screw from Jumbo-Visma, both Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome looked inconsistent and a shadow of their former selves. With the Tour start less than three weeks away, David Brailsford and Co. may be feeling a little anxious after last week’s three-day battle royale.
Faltering Froome, Unbreakable Bennett
While Thomas was largely inconspicuous in the last week’s race in his first race back, taking early turns in the climb and through the flatlands, Froome bounced in and out of view like a yo-yo.
The four-time Tour winner was one of the first to be dropped when the pace ratcheted up on stage 2, with Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo), who was in the group when Froome blew out of the back, telling NOS, “I don’t actually count Froome anymore … You can see that he is not at the level where he will win the Tour.”
As if seeking some sort of redemption, Froome towed the lead group through several kilometers of Sunday’s Grand Colombier summit finish, riding himself into the ground before grinding to a near-halt. After him, it was only Jonathan Castroviejo – arguably Bernal’s and the team’s salvation – that was left. The Spaniard also rode himself to a standstill, leaving his Colombian leader isolated and armchair sports directors around the globe shouting at their televisions in confusion.
“We showed today we’re here to ride a fast pace as well,” Bernal said after finishing the stage. “We did our race and we should be happy with how it went, not just here, but in La Route d’Occitanie. Our big goal is the Tour.”
“Other big riders from other teams also dropped early today,” Bernal insisted after seeing his teammates drop off though the gnarly 17.4km finale to the race. “We need to be calm and to know that we’re just here to train. For sure we want to do good training but they [Froome and Thomas] will be there at the Tour de France.”
While Ineos may be using the early-August races as training with the aim of slowly reaching a pre-Tour peak, Jumbo-Visma went into Tour de L’Ain all guns blazing.
George Bennett‘s metronomic pace on the front closed down threats in a manner reminiscent of Mikel Landa or Wout Poels at their best at the front of “Fortress Froome” in the middle of the last decade. Behind him, Steven Kruijswijk and Robert Gesink were as solid and unfaltering as ever. Roglič was able to sit in the pack, marking out and even eyeballing a fatiguing Bernal on the upper slopes of Sunday’s Grand Colombier climb.
And Tom Dumoulin? After 420 days away from racing, sure, like Froome, he looked rusty at times, but certainly proved stronger overall than his four-time Tour winning rival. The Dutchman had the kick to lead out a reduced bunch kick for Roglič on stage 1, and he lasted through to the final throes of stage 3’s summit showdown.
Having been on the receiving end of the Team Sky / Ineos pain train a number of times himself, Dumoulin relished being the one in the driving seat.
“[It was] very special,” Dumoulin told De Telegraaf Sunday. “Now I can imagine how they must have felt at Ineos for years.”
A crucial three weeks to come
While the Tour de France will not be won this week but in a month’s time when the race approaches its closing salvo of Alpine stages, there could be rumbles of concern within the Ineos bus. Thomas and Froome have less than three weeks to get race-fit again, with the Critérium du Dauphiné starting Wednesday set to provide them their last opportunity to stretch their climbing legs.
“Going from training on your own for weeks during lockdown, then to Tenerife riding in a group again – to suddenly be back in a peloton like that was definitely different,” Thomas admitted after stage 1. “It felt good though. It’s good to test the legs properly instead of just riding to numbers in training. It’s important to be back in the peloton and getting that rhythm back.”
The masterminds pulling the strings at Team Ineos have the experience and expertise to carefully time riders’ peaks and troughs in form, with Froome’s comeback Giro d’Italia win in 2018 a case in point. However, with this year’s Tour set to go uphill from the gun and packing surprises at every turn, the likes of Thomas and Froome will need to be on their toes from the get-go, leaving the coaches, physiologists and nutritionists a very short three weeks to finesse the numbers.
For Jumbo-Visma, the aim will be to maintain. Roglič is on sparkling form, and Bennett, Kruijswijk, and Gesink look more than ready.
“It’s difficult to do a lot of work from here to the Tour de France,” Roglič said. “There is only the Critérium du Dauphiné left. For now, we have shown that we are at the level and we must continue like that.”
Team manager Richard Plugge won’t be forgetting the way the Roglič ripped his way through the start of 2019 and came within a week of winning the Giro d’Italia before unraveling and clinging on for third come the race’s conclusion in Verona, only to see revenge at the Vuelta a España. It could be a case of “less is more” for his Slovenian star until the Grande Départ in Nice.
A selection made?
While the form of some of Ineos’ top talents was wavering at Tour de l’Ain the display may also make their team selection and tactics that little easier. With Froome’s place on the Tour squad in doubt after low-key performances at both races season the season restarted and Thomas certainly still off his best, Bernal may have winched himself a rung higher up the leadership ladder.
Roglič was the undoubted star for Jumbo-Visma over the weekend, but the Dutch team’s leadership scenario may still be hazy.
“After the Critérium du Dauphiné we are going to make a kind of pecking order,” Dumoulin said this weekend. “If the three of us are in a group of eight during the Tour and someone attacks, who will take him back? You have to make agreements about this. There is of course a sort of ranking, but that can also change in the Tour.”
Jumbo-Visma’s big guns will be cooling off until they line up in Clermont-Ferrand to start the Dauphiné on Wednesday.
While the Dutch squad may feel on a cloud after wrapping up the Tour de l’Ain Sunday, for the first time in a decade, Team Sky/Ineos may feel under threat. This year’s Tour de France not only plays out in a different month, but could see the shelving of the traditional story that ends with a Team Sky/Ineos rider taking home the yellow jersey.
But first, let’s see what happens in the final pre-Tour ding-dong at the Dauphine.