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Hot off winning the Tour de Suisse, the Colombian sensation is tamping down suggestions that he will be the outright leader at Team Ineos. Despite injuries that have sidelined Chris Froome and a crash that knocked defending Tour champ Geraint Thomas out of the Swiss tour, Bernal said he will not break ranks during the Tour.
“That’s up to the team to decide,” Bernal told CyclingProNet over team leadership. “Up to now, we haven’t spoken much about that.”
Bernal’s incredible rise since joining the WorldTour last year has only heightened expectations for a second run at the Tour. On a climb-heavy course packed with high-altitude climbs in the second half of the race, many are suggesting this is an ideal route for Bernal.
Despite his impressive Tour debut last year — coupled with his equally proficient 2019 season so far with wins at Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse — Bernal said he will go to the Tour to support defending champion Thomas.
“We have Geraint Thomas, who is the last winner of the Tour, and I have a lot respect for him, and he’s also in very good form,” Bernal continued. “We have to have a bit of respect for him.”
Those comments echo earlier statements from Bernal, who insisted Sunday after wrapping up his Tour de Suisse victory that Thomas will start the Tour de France as Ineos’s lone leader.
“I don’t want to say that I am a favorite,” Bernal said of the Tour. “Geraint Thomas will be our leader, and I will try to help him. I have no problem with that. I still have many Tours in front of me.”
The future could be now for Bernal even if he doesn’t want to say it outright.
Bernal will certainly start the Tour on July 6 in Brussels as a protected rider. With Froome convalescing from a crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné that will keep the four-time Tour winner sidelined for the remainder of the season, Bernal will be naturally elevated inside the Ineos power structure.
Backed by the support and experience of Ineos, which has won six of the past seven editions of the Tour with three different riders, Froome’s absence and questions about Thomas’ form will only increase expectations for Bernal.
At 22, he’s already proven to be able the handle the pressure of leadership this season. At Paris-Nice this spring, he fended off a challenge from compatriot Nairo Quintana (Movistar) to win the prestigious “Race to the Sun.” At the Volta a Catalunya, he was third behind another Colombian, Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana), and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott). And when Thomas crashed out of the Swiss tour, Bernal adroitly handled the pressure to win the most important stage race of his short career.
“I was never afraid,” Bernal said of Sunday’s final stage. “I always had respect of the race and my rivals, but I was never afraid. Everything under control.
“I have to be more than satisfied with what I’ve done this year,” he continued. “I’ve done three WorldTour races, and I’ve been on the podium in all three. I am very happy with the results.”
Bernal, of course, is wisely being prudent and isn’t going to pile even more pressure on himself with outrageous public comments. He’s only raced one grand tour, finishing 15th in his impressive Tour debut last year, so he’s still unproven at the highest levels of the Tour.
A planned run at the Giro d’Italia was scuttled in May when Bernal crashed on a training ride just a week before the start of the Italian grand tour. Bernal is clearly on sharp form, and rivals will be closely watching the powerful Ineos block for any hint of discord among the ranks.
Team manager Dave Brailsford has been able to deliver victories in the Tour despite seeing internal power struggles among dual leaders, including in the 2012 Tour, when Bradley Wiggins and Froome sparred for leadership, and last year, when Thomas stepped up to eclipse Froome.
The Tour’s mountains will soon sort out any hint of intrigue on Ineos and any other teams that might be facing questions of multiple leaders. Up until then, Bernal promises to be loyal to team interests even if that means waiting for his shot at the Tour.