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Egan Bernal is so hungry to return but we don’t know if he’ll get back to that top level again, says Ellingworth

Team boss discusses grand tour rosters in wake of Bernal crash, confirms Geraint Thomas not guaranteed start at Tour de France.

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The road towards Egan Bernal’s recovery is long, and while the rider may be hungrier than ever to reach the level he once raced at there are no guarantees that the former Tour de France will reach those heights again.

That’s the message coming from Ineos Grenadiers’ deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth on the Colombian’s physical health after the team’s best grand tour rider endured a life-threatening crash earlier this year.

In an interview with VeloNews on the eve of Milan-San Remo Ellingworth also confirmed that Ineos would head to the Tour de France with Adam Yates and Dani Martínez as the team’s leaders, and that if selected Geraint Thomas would ride as a domestique.

Egan Bernal’s recovery has been nothing short of miraculous over the last few weeks given his early prognosis, and he is now back pedaling on a stationary bike in his native Colombia. Last week there had been talk of a possible comeback to racing during this calendar year but according to Ellingworth there’s no such chatter in the Ineos ranks. That’s not to suggest that the situation is bleak, it’s just that the team is being realistic and listening to medical advice. They have no plans to rush Bernal’s recovery plans.

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“With Egan, he’s obviously got a long way to go,” Ellingworth told VeloNews.

“We don’t know if he can come back this year. I think that Egan, in his mind he is thinking ‘can I?’ but he has a long way to go. There’s a big difference between lightly pedaling and pedaling in anger. It’s really impossible to say when he’ll be back. There’s obviously a lot of speculation and he’s obviously doing tremendously well but who knows,” he said.

Bernal was in intensive care just a matter of weeks ago after he sustained life-threatening injuries, but he has made huge improvements.

Ellingworth has been impressed with the rider’s physical progress but also praised Bernal’s overall morale. Apparently Bernal is in constant communication with the riders and staff on the team and is watching every race he can on the television.

“Luke Rowe had a horrific injury a few years ago and I think that he said it best when he said that you don’t know how much you miss it until you’re forced to come back. It’s like that with Egan I think but you have to remember that we were taking it hour by hour, then day by day and now it’s week by week,” Ellingworth noted.

“That’s as far as we’re going with it. There’s no serious professional talk about when he’s coming back, none at all. It’s all speculation. Who knows if he will come back to that previous level. Nobody knows but we’re giving him every bit of support and putting everything behind him. He’s in physio every day, he’s living around the corner from the hospital and he’s really committed to it. We’re not working to a timescale. He’s really hungry, he’s really hungry to come back.

“He’s still a young guy and has his whole career ahead of him. It’s not like he’s 35. I don’t know if that’s what happened with Chris Froome but there’s a ten years difference there. It really would be incredible if Egan came back to that level again but you have to remember, it was serious. It could have gone either way.”

Losing your best grand tour rider for a season at the very least might panic some teams into reacting on the transfer market and trying to find an instant replacement but Ineos haven’t taken that approach.

They have Bernal locked in for a number of years after he signed a contract extension before his accident and there is a raft of young riders coming up through the ranks including Tom Pidcock, Luke Plapp and Magnus Sheffield. Adam Yates and Richard Carapaz are out of contract this year but there are ‘ongoing conversations’ with both riders about contract extensions.

What’s clear from Ellingworth is that the team will give Bernal time and space to recover fully and it sounds as though the Colombian’s true condition won’t be assessed – in a competitive sense – until next season.

“You’re always looking anyway. It’s not like everyone’s contract ends at the same time. You’ve always looking. We have invested in Egan and we are confident in his ability in that he had headroom and we’re carrying on the same. We’re giving him everything he needs. You get to know these guys and they get to become part of your family and everyone is invested with Egan. He’s a bloody good guy, and a true champion. He leads by example and has those characteristics that are just great to work with. Why would you not keep going with that?”

Tour de France and Thomas as a domestique

Geraint Thomas winning the 2014 Bayern Rundfahrt
Geraint Thomas winning the 2014 Bayern Rundfahrt (Photo: Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images)

With Bernal out of the Tour de France, there had been speculation and rumor of shifting Carapaz to the Tour instead of the Giro d’Italia.

Ellingworth admitted that the Bernal crash caused the team to pause and take stock, but that Carapaz would remain on track for the Giro and that Adam Yates and Dani Martínez would lead the line in France.

That plan makes sense. Carapaz is unlikely to get the better of Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič in July but the former Giro winner has an excellent chance of winning his second Corsa Rosa on a route that looks ideally suited to his characteristics.

Yates and Martínez will hit the Tour in July and Ellingworth confirmed that Geraint Thomas would ride as a domestique and not as a team leader.

“It’s Yates and Martínez for the Tour. Nothing has changed,” he said.

“Obviously it was a big shock with Egan and when someone like him comes out of the program it can have a huge knock-on effect but looking at the races, the Giro suits Richard perfectly and Adam is very focussed on the Tour. he wants to better his fourth from a few years ago and Martinez was always on that program as well. The Vuelta is open, we’ve not committed but a couple of guys have put their hand up for it.

“For Richard, the Giro is as good as it could get for him. So why would we change that? We’re a grand tour team and that’s what we like to focus on. We’re going to back Adam and Dani.”

Thomas spoke earlier this year about making the Ineos team for the Tour de France. He signed a contract extension with the team over the winter and he is likely to end his career with the British team at the end of next season. He still believes that he can be competitive over three weeks but at this point Ellingworth is settling on utilizing his former Tour winner as a domestique-de-luxe in July.

“Geraint wants to make the Tour. He wants to be there as a support rider and help the guys. He’s been brilliant this year. He was fantastic with the younger guys in Algarve and getting stuck in. He didn’t do a Paris-Nice or Tirreno and he’s done more of a training block to get ready for Catalunya, so he’s pretty focussed. He wanted to change his focus to the Tour in terms of how he’s done things over the years just to spice things up. He’s good and he’s got really good morale. He’s not attempting to go to the Tour for himself. He’s going to be there as a support.”

“Never say never. People go up and down sometimes. For Geraint, he’s obviously getting towards the back end of his career and he’s thinking about what he wants to do and what his position is on the team. He’s right at the center of the team, he’s been with us since day one and he’s won so much for the team. I think he’s earned the right to race in the position that he’s comfortable with. He’s capable of everything, he’s got the whole package and that’s what makes him the whole package.”