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Bernal poised to climb into spotlight as Ineos scrambles after costly crashes

With Chris Froome injured and Geraint Thomas banged up, Egan Bernal hopes to make a mark at the Tour de Suisse, on his way toward the Tour de France.

Now all eyes turn to Egan Bernal.

With Team Ineos scrambling with its two marquee leaders on the injured list, the pressure is mounting for the 22-year-old Colombian in more ways than one.

Chris Froome is still holed up in a French hospital and his Tour de France ambitions are on hold for at least this year. Defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas dodged a bullet in a crash Tuesday that knocked him out of the Tour de Suisse, though his Tour hopes remain alive.

More than ever since he joined the British super team last season, Bernal has his chance.

It all comes to a head on Thursday. After four sprint stages and a time trial to open the nine-day Swiss tour, things get steep with the beyond-category Flumserberg summit finale at the end of the 120.2km sixth stage.

“I’m really looking forward to tomorrow,” Bernal said on the team’s website. “It will be my first mountain stage in a long time.”

The summit finale will be Bernal’s biggest opportunity to prove to his teammates and everyone else he is ready to fill the gaping void left by Froome’s dramatic exit from the 2019 Tour narrative. Thomas seems to be doing okay following a heavy fall Tuesday, with cuts and scrapes to his back and face. Still, he will miss critical racing miles ahead of the Tour after what’s been an uneven spring for the popular Welsh star.

No one’s discounting Thomas just yet, but with a Tour de France that is being described as the highest in race history — including a half-dozen climbs that reach more than 2,000 vertical meters above sea level — Team Ineos could find itself backing Bernal in what will be the Colombian’s second start in the French grand tour.

Bernal’s already accelerated Tour de France evolution is full speed ahead yet again.

Last year, Bernal impressed in key stages in his surprise Tour debut, but had no pressure to perform in the GC. Teammate Thomas won, and Froome finished third overall. Things are dramatically different in ways Bernal could have never imagined just weeks away from the start of the 2019 Tour in Brussels on July 6.

Bernal was supposed to lead the team at the Giro d’Italia, but a crash on the eve of the Italian grand tour rewrote his season’s script. Instead of taking on leadership duties at the Giro, Bernal was once again expected to slot in behind Froome and Thomas at the Tour.

But with Froome sidelined and Thomas shaken up, things have changed yet again. In the coming few days, Bernal can stake his claim as outright team leader of the powerful Ineos squad. The winner of Paris-Nice back in March, a convincing ride at the Tour de Suisse will go a long way toward confirming his credentials ahead of Brussels.

Thursday’s stage will be an important test. The 8km Flumserberg climb features an average grade of nearly 10 percent, steep enough to shake up the overall standings.

The stage will be Bernal’s first race-speed summit finale since March when he raced across the Spanish Pyrénées to finish third at the Volta a Catalunya. After the clavicle injury that sidelined him for the Giro, Bernal posted some impressive training rides in Andorra, including setting a few Strava KOMs on some of the major climbs.

“I’ve been feeling good in training, but the race is always different,” Bernal said. “I don’t know exactly what to expect. I will do my best.”

Thursday’s stage will open a decisive four-day battle for the Tour de Suisse crown. Overnight leader Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe) is expected to fade in the mountains, so the leader’s jersey is up for grabs. Friday features another uphill finale at the beyond-category San Gottardo summit (12km at 7.4 percent). Saturday’s flat 19.2km time trial at Goms isn’t Bernal’s preferred terrain, but the race ends with a queen stage featuring three beyond-category summits packed into a short, 101.5km course. Weather might force a detour around the day’s second climb, Sustenpass, but there is plenty of vertical on the menu for Bernal to stretch his legs.

With Froome on the sidelines, many are already calling this year’s Tour de France the most wide-open in a half-decade. Without Froome to lead Ineos’s dominance, many rivals will believe they have the best chance in years to win the yellow jersey.

That’s assuming, of course, that Ineos won’t be able to win again. After all, the team has won six of the past seven editions of the Tour with three different riders. With Thomas and Bernal as co-leaders, the team’s depth will be as strong as ever. Now it’s just a question of whether they will have the legs — and can avoid further crashes and setbacks to get to Brussels — to challenge for the yellow jersey.

“The big goal is the Tour,” Bernal said. “This [Swiss] race is hard racing for that, but I hope to go full-gas tomorrow.”

For Bernal, the Swiss tour is another unexpected detour to his season. Alas, all roads lead to Paris.