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With less than two weeks until the start of the Tour de France, two riders have emerged as the bookmakers’ top favorites. One is the defending champion. The other is a 22-year-old, with a single, solitary Grand Tour start under his belt, who isn’t even the number-one GC rider on his team.
Wait, what? Could Egan Bernal (Ineos) actually win the Tour de France?
Inspired by his recent Tour de Suisse win, and also by Neal Rogers’ recent column considering Jakob Fuglsang’s own case as a Tour favorite, I’ve taken to pondering that compelling question. Two takeaways stand out after some analysis of the situation.
On the one hand, winning the yellow jersey would be a highly improbable achievement for someone so inexperienced. For Bernal to win, he will have to overcome several challenges that have proven insurmountable for so many others that came before.
On the other … he totally could pull it off.
A huge challenge
With the cycling world abuzz with talk of Egan Bernal’s Tour chances, it’s worth pumping the proverbial brakes to point out how hard it will be for him to win it.
The biggest obstacle standing in Bernal’s way is his youth, and all that it entails.
No 22-year-old has won the Tour since Laurent Fignon did it in 1983. The Frenchman was nearly 23 by then, and still the Tour’s youngest winner in many years at the time. Bernal is still theoretically years away from reaching his physical prime.
More important than his calendar age is his lack of experience. He has only raced one other Grand Tour in his career: last year’s Tour de France. No Grand Tour winner this decade has achieved the feat with only one prior three-week appearance under his belt. Generational talent Alberto Contador was the most recent Tour de France winner to do it, back in 2007.
The dearth of inexperienced winners is no coincidence: Grand Tour racing is a skill that takes most riders years to hone. The mental and physical fortitude required to stay on pace through three weeks is not easy for a newcomer to muster. The racing savvy required to constantly be in the right place at the right time takes years to master. And beyond those challenges are the ones imposed by media and fan pressure in the most-watched bike race on Earth.
There are so many things to tune out if Bernal wants to stay focused on his GC ambitions at the Tour—and he’ll need to stay focused, on his goals and on the road especially. The biggest knock on Bernal thus far has been his struggle to stay upright. He has had to recover from injuries after big crashes multiple times already in his young career.
Then there’s the whole team leadership thing. Bernal is not his team’s clear-cut leader. He’ll have to prove himself worthy of team support out on the road.
And yet …
Bernal’s case as a Tour favorite
Considering the immense talent he has shown so far and, crucially, this year’s Tour field and route, Bernal really might pull it off.
First, the talent. Bernal has been touted as cycling’s next big thing for years. Talk of his otherworldly VO2max had WorldTour teams interested in him as a teenager. Then he won the Tour de l’Avenir. Then Sky signed him and he quickly lived up to his billing with big results in his very first year.
He followed those up with more in his second year, and has now won three WorldTour one-week races: the Amgen Tour of California, Paris-Nice, and the Tour de Suisse. He flashed his incredible climbing chops and a respectable time trial in all three.
In other words, he has not come out of nowhere. So far he has lived up to the immense expectations put upon him. He has been praised by directors for his maturity. Since first joining the Androni Giocattoli squad in 2016, he has learned Italian and English while also learning how to handle himself in the European peloton. He may be “green,” but he has had what it takes to impress everyone around him thus far.
His 2018 Tour performance was a big part of that. He finished 15th in his debut Tour despite riding as a domestique. He played a huge role in wearing down Sky’s rivals, with an especially brilliant ride up the Alpe d’Huez, and was still visible in the Sky train even into the third week.
“We’ve never doubted that he was capable of great things,” Sky sports director Nicolas Portal said at the time, “but even then he’s impressed us.”
That proven talent is why Ineos was planning to trust him to lead the team’s Giro d’Italia charge earlier this year, which is saying something. Ineos does not simply hand out Grand Tour leadership to anyone — just ask Geraint Thomas, who spent more than a few years as a one-week racing star before Sky began considering him a potential Grand Tour leader. Bernal may not have raced the Giro, due to a crash this spring, but he was given the nod for the Giro in just his second season with the team.
In that way, his emergence is reminiscent of Nairo Quintana’s at Movistar. Quintana may have taken a step back in recent seasons (more on that in a moment), but his 2013 Tour performance should serve as motivation for compatriot Bernal. Then 23, Quintana also had just one Grand Tour in his legs (the previous year’s Vuelta) heading into the Tour. The similarly highly-touted Colombian finished second behind only Chris Froome that year, simply out-climbing everyone else.
Speaking of Quintana, he remains likely to be in the mix this July, but as one of a few contenders in a field that seems less potent than in years past. Quintana himself has seemingly plateaued in recent years, not truly contending for the Tour since 2016. Of the three other riders most highly favored with bookmakers – Fuglsang, Richie Porte, and Adam Yates – not one counts a single Grand Tour podium to his name.
With Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin both out of the Tour due to injury, Vincenzo Nibali supposedly focused on stages, and Primoz Roglic skipping the race, Bernal could have as strong a chance as ever to make the improbable happen. If he can stay upright and healthy, his talent may trump his rivals’ experience, particularly on a course so heavily skewed to his climbing talents. Just one individual time trial awaits on the 2019 Tour parcours.
Being surrounded by the world’s best Grand Tour squad will help too. Considering the firepower at Ineos’ disposal, it won’t be easy for any of the team’s rivals to knock Bernal out of the lead if he can snatch it on La Planche des Belles Filles (stage 6) or the Tourmalet (stage 14).
Of course, Bernal has some work to do to earn Ineos’ support. The biggest rival for his Tour hopes will likely come from within his own team. It won’t be easy for Bernal to prove himself worthy of Ineos’ clear support with the defending champ also on the roster.
“If he’s better than me, for sure I will help him,” Bernal said of Thomas after the Tour de Suisse — but what if Thomas isn’t better during the Tour? Thomas’ preparation has not been ideal. He counts no race wins on his 2019 palmares, and a crash at the Tour de Suisse derailed his final tune-up event. There could be an opening here.
Ineos may be known for going all-in for its lone leader, but behind the scenes, things could change quickly if Thomas falters or if Bernal just proves much stronger on the climbs — and he’s done nothing but look strong on the climbs since joining the team.
As improbable as it would seem for the team to shift its focus from the defending champ to the upstart second option, it really does seem possible considering how talented that second option is.
After all, that plan worked out pretty well for Ineos last year.