With Egan Bernal now at the top of the Team Ineos hierarchy, the 23-year-old Colombian will discover a new kind of pressure that comes with outright leadership.
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So far during his meteoric rise, Bernal has had the luxury to work largely in the shadows of team captains Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas. Of course, he’s faced the blare of the TV cameras from his native Colombia, but up until now, the young protégé could ride largely in their slipstreams when it came to off-the-bike pressure and responsibility.
All that changes in 2020 after team boss Dave Brailsford made the stunning announcement this week that neither Froome nor Thomas will race the Tour when it starts August 29 in Nice.
The 23-year-old Bernal shrugged off any hint that the mantle of full leadership will change his approach.
“I’m really excited to have this team around me in this Tour de France,” Bernal said this week. “I’m really happy to be on this team, and I want to go there and do my best.”
The reshuffling of the Team Ineos power structure puts Bernal clearly at the center of the team’s present and future.
With Froome leaving Ineos next season for Israel Start-Up Nation, and Thomas with one more year on his contract, it’s obvious that Brailsford is turning the page on the entire power structure within the team.
To ease the burden and to assure the team has a second option, Brailsford tapped Giro d’Italia champion Richard Carapaz to be a second protected rider.
“We’ve taken our time to think about the team for the Tour this year,” Brailsford said this week. “The most important thing is a sense of purpose. We are going to get Egan and Richard to target yellow.
“Egan deserves this position as out-right leader of the Tour,” Brailsford said. “We brought Richard in, there is a combination we think works. We want to use those two guys together.”
The rise of Bernal reveals the rebuilding and recruiting efforts Brailsford initiated during the 2017-18 seasons.
Of this year’s Tour squad, only two riders — Luke Rowe, the last of the Team Sky “old guard” who joined the team in 2012, and Michal Kwiatkowski, who joined in 2016 — were part of the team before the 2018 season.
Leaving Froome and Thomas at home, however, was a surprise to many inside the Ineos team bus.
“It’s tough to leave them at home, but we’ve got to put all of our eggs in one basket, and look after Egan,” Rowe told RTBF this week. “It’s a tough decision. That’s why the bosses are paid the big money, and we do what they say.”
So far, Bernal seems to have taken the added attention and responsibility in his stride.
Since joining Ineos in 2018, Bernal has naturally progressed into the role of Tour captain based on his tremendous power, his calmness on and off the bike, and his winning performances.
In contrast to compatriots such as Rigoberto Urán and Nairo Quintana, who have emerged as major sports celebrities in Colombia, Bernal keeps a relatively low profile.
Although he made history by becoming the first Colombian to win the yellow jersey, he does not actively search out the media spotlight. Last summer, he skipped out on any major celebrations of his historic victory, and only held a relatively small event in his hometown of Zipaquirá.
Since then, Bernal has largely stayed away from the media glare, and kept his focus on training and racing.
Bernal brings a quiet confidence and maturity beyond his age to his role that catches some of his teammates and staffers off-guard.
“Egan is very mature, and it’s great to see that in such a young guy,” Ineos sport director Gabriel Rasch told VeloNews. “He keeps his morale high, he works super-hard, and he works well with everyone on the team. He is treated like a king in Colombia, but he has both feet on the ground.”
A new chapter begins next week at the Ineos franchise with Bernal confirmed as the team’s top leader.
The team has won seven of the past eight editions of the Tour with four different riders, unprecedented in cycling history. Brailsford clearly believes the future belongs to Bernal.
Of course, an unshackled Bernal with the team’s unquestioned support may fly even higher.
Now all eyes will be on him at the Tour. Froome and Thomas will be watching too, from the sidelines.