Bernal is waiting until ‘the right moment,’ and there could be a few ahead

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Nine stages into the Tour de France, defending champ Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) is 21 seconds off the lead. In the four stages so far at this race that could reasonably be called mountainous, Bernal has looked … fine.

Primoz Roglic and his Jumbo-Visma team have looked better, which is why the Slovenian is wearing yellow right now — but he is not resting on his laurels. As Roglic told reporters on Monday, “It’s still just the start of the Tour.” He will be happy to have an advantage over Bernal, but he will also know that Bernal can afford to be a little patient. In fact, Bernal is pretty open about it.

“The plan is to wait until it will be the right moment,” Bernal said when asked after stage 9 how he planned to gain time on his rivals.

Those moments should be coming.

The mountain stages we’ve seen so far have only featured one hors categorie climb, the Port de Balès, and while the first-category climbs that featured in the finales of stages 4, 6, 8, and 9 were relatively steep, none were particularly long. Bernal, particularly as he worked his way through back pain, was never going to gain big chunks of time in the first half of the race.

“In this part of the race, what’s important is the feeling you have on the bike, and the feeling I had today was better than yesterday,” he said on Sunday, confirming what was visible to anyone watching as he arrived at the finish with a very select group. “I’m really happy for that because today it meant that I enjoyed the last climbs a lot.”

Assuming the Tour continues as planned after this latest round of COVID-19 testing (which is a whole other story of course), Bernal’s favored terrain lies ahead. A climb like the Grand Colombier (17.4 km at 7.1%) on stage 15 will give him ample opportunity to put his elite ascending skills on display and potentially gain some real time on anyone he manages to drop.

The Col de la Loze on stage 17 is even longer and steeper, and it ascends all the way to 2,304 meters. Up there, a 21-second gap could evaporate in the thin Alpine air. And although the penultimate stage of this race is a time trial, Roglic – and Tadej Pogacar for that matter – can’t expect to reclaim all that much time on Bernal considering the TT ascends La Planche des Belles Filles.

In other words, anyone else hoping to stand in the way of Bernal’s Tour title defense will need to be wary. They may also want to stay sharp for any opportunity to pick up time before Bernal’s “moment,” or moments, arrive later in the race.

That will certainly mean being laser-focused on positioning ahead of any potential echelons on stage 10, and it might also mean riding aggressively on any of the shorter, punchier climbs that await between now and the coming weekend, when things will start to head into Bernal territory. Playing things conservatively now and hoping to beat Bernal at what he does best later might not be the soundest approach.

We’ll see how things play out in the coming days. With the prospect of a high-flying Bernal looming, hopefully Roglic, Pogacar, and the rest of the yellow jersey hopefuls will keep this race entertaining as the second week gets into full swing.

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