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This is Egan Bernal near his best, he admitted Friday, shortly after losing 37 seconds to a pair of flying Slovenians through the Massif Central. And his best, right now, is not quite good enough.
“I mean, I am looking at my numbers and I am doing one of my best numbers,” Bernal said, speaking shortly after the stage finished. “If the others are stronger, I can do nothing, eh?”
Bernal felt good today, he said. He felt good all day, before and on the last climb, over the more than 4,000 meters of climbing on the day. “I tried to do my best, but they were stronger than me,” he said.
It’s not what the Bernal fan wants to hear. The defending Tour champion, at his best, was no match for Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar today. Thirty-seven seconds is not nothing, particularly given the gap Bernal will likely need on both Slovenians ahead of the final time trial.
A theory has circulated over the last 13 stages, based largely off Bernal’s late surge at last year’s Tour de France, that we have not yet seen Peak Bernal. The Best Bernal. Last-Week Bernal. It has become something of a trope, as if we can predict anything about the rise and fall of any rider’s form, let alone a rider we’ve only seen in one previous Tour de France.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
It’s useful to think of the peloton’s Tour de France form like waves in an outgoing tide. Even as the sea drops, individual waves still have the capacity to reach out, flowing and crashing at various chaotic and unpredictable heights up the beach. Sometimes a particularly large one stretches further than the rest. But the inescapable reality is one of slow, inexorable decline, for everyone.
The GC riders’ collective form does the same. Everyone is dropping, as fatigue sets in; those who drop the least shine lightly in the second week and brightly in the third. Just because Bernal’s best numbers today lost him 37 seconds doesn’t mean those same numbers next week won’t gain it all back.
Last year, Bernal spent most of the Tour riding unremarkably. He lost more than a minute to rivals in the stage 13 time trial, won by Julian Alaphilippe. He lost a handful of additional seconds here and there. Seven on La Planche early on. Eight on the Tourmalet much later.
It wasn’t until stage 18, high in the Alps, where Bernal made his first forceful acceleration. He had nearly a minute by the top of the Galibier, at altitude, and held on to 31 seconds into Valloire. The next day, he did the same, and the race was his.
If you’re counting stages, we’re more than halfway through this Tour de France, but we’re far from there from a GC perspective. That race is just getting started. The bulk of the Tour’s climbing lies ahead, kicked off on Sunday with a triplet of tough climbs in the Jura. After a rest day, a thick grouping of Alpine stages looms. Then a time trial, flat for 30 kilometers before a 6 kilometer rise up the Planche des Belles Filles.
Primoz Roglic and Tadej Pogacar share the driver’s seat. They look comfortable. And they’re climbing better than Bernal. The only certainty, as the tide goes out, is it will leave something, someone, floundering on the beach.