NICE, France (VN) — The battle of the big trains hit the high mountains Sunday in the hills above Nice, and the ensuing grimaces confirmed this Tour de France looks to be a tug-of-war between Ineos Grenadiers and Jumbo-Visma.
The Dutch pretenders to the Tour throne piled on heavy on the final two climbs, but defending champion Egan Bernal looks like he won’t be intimidated easily. Despite riding in the wake of “Air Jumbo” up and over Col d’Eze, the blue and red new-look Ineos Grenadiers jersey nudged into the frame in the closing decisive moments.
“Today was a proper Tour stage, and I enjoyed that,” Bernal said at the line Sunday. “We went to control during the race with the whole stage. In the final, Michal [Kwiatkowski] and Richard [Carapaz] did a great job. I got through the day pretty good.”
There were doubts about Bernal and his back coming into this Tour. He left the Critérium du Dauphiné after complaining of back pain, and told reporters that it was still bothering him just days before the start. Saturday’s crash-marred wet ride in the rain didn’t provide the tell-tale signs of who looks on form to win this Tour.
The 186km, four-climb stage tackled some serious vertical. In fact, Tour de France boss Christian Prudhomme said a Tour has never seen so much climbing so early during its century-plus history.
Jumbo-Visma didn’t disappoint, with Robert Gesink and George Bennett, who brushed off a crash Saturday, pacing strong at the front for Primož Roglič and Tom Dumoulin. The 2017 Giro d’Italia winner had a bit of a wobble when he crashed late, after it appeared that Kwiatkowski cut out his front wheel. Dumoulin was able to rejoin the race and finished safely in the main bunch.
If Jumbo-Visma’s aggressive posture was meant to say it’s here and ready to contest for victory, it worked. If the team is trying to knock Bernal off his balance, it’s obvious they’re going to need more pavement. Bernal calmly followed the wheels and avoided trouble, crossing the line 17th along with the elite GC group.
“I feel happy to be in the race again. I really enjoyed the race today,” Bernal said. “I got through the day pretty good. It was a very fast and difficult stage, a true stage of the Tour de France.”
Even more important for Bernal, his Ineos Grenadiers teammates stepped up to the challenge. Kwiatkowski, Andrey Amador and Jonathan Castroviejo draped Bernal in a protective cloak over the day’s final climb, and chaperoned him safely to the finishing straight on the Promenade des Anglais.
“We saved the day, we saved as much as we can the legs, and this is the Tour,” Bernal said. “We need to go day by day, and try to save energy for the last part of the Tour.”
With Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas not at the Tour, many were wondering how Bernal might handle the pressure of being the team’s outright leader. So far, it appears just fine.