A mudslide and freak hailstorm high in the French Alps on Friday might have cost Geraint Thomas (Ineos) a chance to defend his Tour de France title. The world will never know how the truncated stage 19 to Tignes would have played out.
Fate turned against Thomas and shined on Bernal instead, who becomes Colombia’s first yellow jersey. For Thomas, there will always be a tinge of regret in how the final stages played out.
“There’s a slight little part of me that would have liked to have been on the top step,” Thomas said. “Egan is an amazing guy. He’s 22, who knows how many of these he is going to win. He was such a nice guy, and it was a pleasure to stand next to the podium with him.”
With Bernal’s victory, Ineos/Sky continues its incredible domination at the Tour. Dating back to 2012, it’s won seven of the past eight editions, with four different riders. That feat alone puts the team among the best in Tour history. Bradley Wiggins, who worked for Eurosport TV during much of this year’s Tour, started the run in 2012. Chris Froome, who missed this year’s Tour with injury, won in 2013 and 2015-17. Thomas stepped up last year, and Bernal delivered victory much sooner than anyone would have expected.
Though Bernal was tapped as one of the top candidates when the Tour started in Brussels, Ineos positioned Thomas as their top captain. That was in part to pay respect to the defending champion and second to take pressure off Bernal’s young shoulders.
The untested Bernal seemed happy enough to play lieutenant to Thomas, though the team was moving both riders to keep them into contention coming out of the Pyrénées.
Everything changed in an instant when Bernal jumped on the Col de Iseran on Friday. At 2750m at the summit, this was Bernal country, and the tactic was for the Colombian to attack, and have Thomas follow the wheels and put pressure on their rivals. With still two major mountaintop finales, Ineos wanted to finally get rid of the stubborn Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), and secure the yellow jersey.
No one knows how the stage would have played out. Once the leaders were over the top, instead of possibly regrouping before the Tignes climb, a freak summer deluge stopped the Tour in its tracks. The fall-out was obvious when the Tour organization decided to take the times at the top of the Iseran. No one had raced the Iseran thinking that was the finish line, most of all Thomas. Bernal was in yellow, and Thomas would just have to live with it.
“It’s slightly mixed emotions,” Thomas said. “I am slightly disappointed not to have won a second Tour. It’s crazy, when two years ago I had my arm in a sling and I wasn’t sure I was going to be able to race again.”
Thomas’s second place is impressive by any measure considering how his 2019 season unfolded. His approach to the Tour was far from ideal. The Welshman had a rocky spring, and when he crashed out of the Tour de Suisse, the Tour seemed like a long shot.
Thomas, however, showed up in the Tour looking fit and focused. He survived a string of crashes and pileups in the first half, and rode into the virtual lead behind the ever-surprising Alaphilippe.
What would have happened if Alaphilippe had cracked a day earlier? Thomas likely would have been in yellow at the end of Thursday’s stage 18, and he would have had the team and Bernal working for him. Ineos couldn’t crack the Frenchman over the Galibier on Thursday, however, so it was all-in for Friday.
Once they were on the Iseran on Friday, Ineos was unfolding its tactic. But then fate intervened, and Thomas could only wonder what might have happened.
“In this Tour, it seemed like Murphy’s Law,” he said. “What will go wrong, can go wrong. There were little setbacks here and there, and how the tactics worked out. I am happy I gave all I had, and I am happy it’s Egan standing there on the podium in front of me.”
On Saturday, Ineos rode to help Bernal bring home yellow. Thomas wasn’t going to betray his teammate, and couldn’t afford to try something sneaky and perhaps lose his podium spot to Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma).
For Thomas, who had never finished in the top-10 before winning last year’s Tour, is both an important confirmation that 2018 was no fluke, but he’ll also have that nugget of doubt.
Thomas’s attitude reflects a sense of loyalty and teamwork inside Ineos. At least publicly, there were never any hints of in-race betrayals or inside-the-bus tension. Just like last year, when Froome celebrated Thomas’s victory when he fell short of winning a record-tying fifth Tour, Thomas openly celebrated Bernal’s breakthrough victory.
“I’ve ridden and been loyal for so many teammates before me,” he said. “It was 10 years of doing it when I get my own opportunity to [win the Tour] but at the same time, when someone like Egan who’s in the team as well and he’s riding well, there’s no shame and no harm if I do my bit for him.”
For Thomas, last year’s win and this year’s effort is a resounding confirmation that his victory was no fluke.
“Before last year, no one even thought I could podium in the Tour,” he said. “And now this year, it’s disappointing that I didn’t win. So you have put it in perspective.”
Thomas will have a year to think about it. And in 2020, Froome will likely be back. The tactics could get even more complicated.