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Egan Bernal will not win this Tour de France. It was written on his face on the Col de la Biche, and hinted in his positioning at the base of the Grand Colombier, and became an irrefutable fact as he slipped off the back before 70 kilograms of Wout van Aert had even stopped pulling at the front of a five-rider-strong Jumbo-Visma train.
With eight minutes and 25 seconds to a pair of Slovenians who show absolutely zero signs of cracking, the defense of Bernal’s 2019 crown is impossible.
“To be honest, I wasn’t doing well on the first climb,” Bernal said. “I almost dropped there. I told my teammates on the third climb I was à bloc. I tried but knew I had to let go.
“I tried for myself and the team but others are stronger. I have to accept that. What’s up? I felt empty and had no power. No excuses, they are stronger. I felt good yesterday so have no idea what happened today.”
Un jour sans, as the French say. A day without. Any rider knows the feeling. An inexplicable lacking, without obvious explanation.
Where did the young Colombian go wrong? Even he doesn’t know.
All of Ineos has not looked their usual selves this Tour. The expected dual of powerful mountain leadouts failed to materialize, as the team found itself utterly dominated by the surging yellow of Jumbo-Visma. Bernal looked good in a few specific moments but appeared on the back foot more often than not.
From the start, things already weren’t going to plan. A crash at the Criterium du Dauphine left Bernal with back trouble, the full impact of which was never fully communicated outside the team. Geraint Thomas’ poor showing at the Dauphine led to a swap for Richard Carapaz, who had been expecting to ride the Giro a full month later. He hasn’t appeared at his best yet this race. Pavel Sivakov, brilliant at the Dauphine, crashed multiple times on stage 1 of the Tour and rode at or off the back for most of the first week. He still isn’t his old self.
Still, Bernal’s difficulties have not come as the result of a sub-par team. They have protected him when it mattered most, through crosswinds and the technical stages across the Massif Central. On Sunday, the first day in the high mountains since the Tour’s brief Pyreneen stint, Bernal fell off the back long before he ran out of teammates. On slopes like those tackled in stage 15, with average gradients hovering near 8%, a teammate is little more than a psychological aid anyway.
“Today, I lost 3 years of my life,” Bernal told Colombian radio. “The back is not an excuse, the team will have to rethink now what we are looking for until the end of this Tour de France.”
Perhaps he’s overtrained. The massive workload of his COVID summer is visible to all, posted on Strava and on Instagram. Huge weeks, back-to-back, high in the mountains above his Colombian home base. No racing to assess fatigue and force rest.
Perhaps it’s just pressure. Bernal, still just 22, raced the 2019 Tour de France almost completely without expectation, in the shadow of the defending champion, tucked beneath the wing of a team that was still, back then, by far the most powerful in the race. Then he became a national hero, Colombia’s first Tour winner, a rider some said would win for years to come. In a year, everything has changed.
There will be no Last-Week Bernal. The mountains asked their questions, and he couldn’t answer. For the first time in half a decade, no Ineos on the podium in Paris. Cycling’s most dominant Grand Tour team now needs to take a step back and figure out what went wrong.
“This is life,” Bernal said. “You can’t win them all. Winning TDF is now impossible.”