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Tour de France

How the 2019 Tour de France tilted for Bernal instead of Thomas

The fateful consequences of last year's Tour played out in 2020 in dramatic fashion.

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Egan Bernal deservedly made history last July as Colombia’s first Tour de France champion.

The then-22-year-old rode a near-flawless race last summer to snag the yellow jersey in the Alps, and pedaled down the Champs-Élysées into the history books.

Yet controversy and conjecture continue to hound Bernal’s historic victory. And even more so after Ineos Grenadiers left Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at home for the 2020 edition.

Last year, freakish summer weather disrupted the closing two decisive mountain stages and forever altered the outcome of the 2019 Tour.

Of course, no one can change what happened last summer in the Alps. A wild high-alpine, summer storm doused the Alps in hail, wind, and rain, forcing the neutralization of stage 19 to Tignes, and shortening the next day’s stage to Val Thorens. Roads were literally impassable due to landslides, and that was that

Everyone had no choice but to live with the controversial decision by the race jury to set the time at the top of the Col de l’Iseran in the weather-shortened stage 19 to Tignes. That ruling put Bernal into yellow, and all but assured him of overall victory. All he had to do was follow the wheels and stay upright, and the Tour was his.

No one will ever know what might have happened had those two stages been raced at their full distance.

What did happen was that Bernal claimed the yellow jersey in the weather-shortened stage to Tignes, and then defended it the next day to secure the overall win.

The rest, they say, is history.

The time trial in Pau proved decisive. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

But how might have last year’s Tour de France turned out if just a small things along the way could have gone differently? And how is what happened last summer shaping the 2020 Tour?

Last summer, Thomas played the impeccable teammate throughout the drama last summer, even as he finished runner-up in an edition that just as easily could have — and perhaps almost should have — fallen his way.

Thomas, the yellow jersey of 2018, could only grit his teeth as he ended up on the second step in Paris behind Bernal.

“It’s a shame about the canceled stage and the shortened stage,” Thomas told The Guardian in December. “You can’t say Egan shouldn’t have won, but there is a bit of an unknown.”

The controversial decision to mark the times at the top of the Iseran, little more than midway through the decisive mountain stage when Bernal was on a solo attack, set in stone the hierarchy of team leadership, and left Thomas with no choice but to defend the team’s enviable position in the next day’s final summit finale.

Thomas isn’t the only one wondering how things might have turned out differently last summer.

Speaking on his podcast last month on Eurosport, 2012 Tour winner Bradley Wiggins went so far to say Thomas was robbed of victory in last year’s Tour.

“I think had we had the stage to Tignes last year completed, I think Bernal would have cracked and Geraint would have won the Tour that day,” Wiggins said on the podcast.

Of course, there’s no way to ever know what might have happened.

More than Bernal, it was the surprising legs of Julian Alaphilippe that stymied Thomas’s bid at doubling yellow. The dashing Frenchman surprised everyone by stoutly defending the maillot jaune as long as he did. And by carrying it all the way to the ill-fated stage to Tignes where Bernal finally took it off his shoulders for good, the Frenchman denied Thomas a chance to slip into yellow earlier in the race.

Up until the stage to Tignes, it was Thomas — not Bernal — who was poised to take yellow if Alaphilippe crumbled.

Rewind the Tour to the decisive time trial into Pau, and it was Alaphilippe who stunned Thomas to win the stage and carry the yellow jersey into the Pyrénées. Thomas, then second overall at 1:26 behind the Frenchman, was more than 1:26 ahead of Bernal, who dipped from third to fifth on GC after the time trial.

Julian Alaphilippe
Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, in yellow, at the 2019 Tour. Photo: James Startt

On paper, Thomas was poised to move into yellow if and when Alaphilippe cracked in the Pyrénées.

That crack never came.

The implications are clear. Had Ineos been able to drop Alaphilippe in the Pyrénées as many expected, Thomas would have carried the yellow jersey into the Alps. Thomas then would have had the powerful Ineos fortress supporting him in three major days of climbing.

It didn’t happen that way, and it was Thomas who struggled in the Pyrénées while Bernal patiently chipped away at the ever-stubborn Alaphilippe.

It was Bernal — not Thomas — who was carrying momentum into the Alps.

On paper, the high-altitude passes in the Alps in last year’s Tour heavily favored Bernal more than Thomas. And even if the Welshman was riding into better form, he had missed his best chance to take yellow after the team was unable to shake Alaphilippe in the Pyrénées.

Alaphilippe surprised yet again to defend in stage 18 up and over the Col du Galibier, but Bernal was quietly picking off valuable seconds to both the Frenchman and Thomas. By the start of the fateful stage 19, Bernal had clawed ahead of Thomas on GC, climbing from fifth to second, at 1:30 behind Alaphilippe, and five seconds ahead of Thomas, then in third.

Those five seconds changed everything.

Momentum was clearly on Bernal’s side going into stage 19, and the high-altitude summit of the Col de l’Iseran at more than 2,700m elevation was perfectly suited for Bernal’s Colombian-tuned lungs. Ineos played the perfect tactic to send Bernal up the road, which did the job of finally snapping the elastic to Alaphilippe.

When the freak outburst smashed into the Alps, Bernal was already clear over the summit of the Iseran. Who knows what might have happened? It was another 22km to the base of the climb to seven-kilometer climb Tignes. There were some big motors in the chase group with Thomas, who was under no pressure to work. Had Bernal been caught, Thomas might have had the freedom to counter over the top.

Might is the key word. Just as easily, Bernal might have ridden away from everyone and won the stage by an even larger margin.

Stage 19 was neutralized due to snow and a mudslide (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)

The next day, weather remained chaotic, forcing officials to shorten the stage to just 59.5km up the valley to Val Thorens. As the race later played out, Alaphilippe faded off the podium, and Thomas could only ride in defense of Bernal’s newly minted yellow.

By that weekend, Bernal was being toasted as Colombia’s first yellow jersey. And Thomas could only stand aside politely and applaud.

Inside the Team Ineos bus, however, there was little doubt who was the strongest rider going into the third week of the 2019 Tour.

“Within the team, everyone knew that Egan was the strongest,” Ineos sport director Gabriel Rasch told VeloNews. “It was pretty clear within the team. They know who was the strongest, and they had their tactic to win.”

The history books clearly state Bernal as the winner of the 2019 Tour de France. No need for an asterisk.

Bernal’s victory clearly played out with major implications in 2020. The newly branded Ineos Grenadiers left both Thomas and four-time Tour winner Froome at home. Convinced that Bernal was the team’s present and future, Brailsford made the bet to build a team entirely around Bernal.

All that unraveled Sunday on Grand Colombier, and without a Thomas “guarantee,” the team enters the final week without a stage victory and almost no chance for the final podium.