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Egan Bernal, Vincenzo Nibali, Geraint Thomas front up to make-or-break seasons in France

Etoile de Bessèges this week to play host to three grand tour greats with career-defining questions to answer.

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The Etoile de Bessèges has become one of the most important races you’ve likely never heard of. At least, it has for grand tour greats Egan Bernal, Vincenzo Nibali, and Geraint Thomas, all who have questions to answer and points to prove.

Is Bernal’s back still busted? Has Nibali still got the gas to keep pace with the new generation? And can Thomas stake a place at the top of the hierarchy at Ineos Grenadiers? This week’s five-stage race in France will give us some early hints.

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None of these former Tour de France winners had the 2020 they would have wished for.

Bernal bailed out of the Tour under the strain of back and hip issues that persisted through the winter. Thomas fell foul of a stray bidon when in the form of his life at the Giro d’Italia to fracture his pelvisAnd Nibali? Old Father Time sunk his fingers into the aging shark, leaving the 36-year-old with his worst GC performance at the Giro in over 10 years.

It’s unlikely that any of the trio will be targeting big results in the five stages of Bessèges. Instead, the roads around the Gard Department of southern France will make for a gentle introduction to a season that could radically alter, if not end, their careers.

Bernal limped through the Alps before pulling the plug on his Tour defense. Photo: James Startt

Bernal’s 2019 Tour victory put him right at the top of the ladder at Ineos Grenadiers, landing the 24-year-old sole leadership slot at the 2020 Grande Boucle after old-timers Thomas and Chris Froome failed to show any form. Bernal hasn’t raced since quietly fading out of last year’s Tour, and after a long recovery process, seems to have only recently returned to heavy training.

Bessèges this week will see Bernal racing for the first time since last summer. However, the Ineos Grenadiers of early 2021 is not the team that flickered out in France last August. Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richard Carapaz have more-than proven themselves. Adam Yates is on the scene. Team boss David Brailsford is getting excited about a new, more dynamic racing strategy.

Will Bernal have the legs to back up his desire to deal with unfinished business at the Tour de France? Or will he be elbowed aside on what is a brimming Ineos team bus?

All eyes will be on the Colombian this week. Bernal is intent on returning to the Tour but has also muttered about a go at the Giro d’Italia. Brailsford isn’t going to be expecting him to be at a yellow jersey level just yet, but if Bernal is way off the back in Bessèges, his team manager may be sketching out an early schedule that sends him toward Italy rather than the prestige and pressure of France.

Thomas’s chances for a Giro win were all but gone after the opening kilometer of stage 3 of the Giro d’Italia. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Thomas is at the other end of his career but in a similar situation to the Colombian 10 years his junior.

The Welshman has been handed the gift of a time trial-heavy Tour de France that is perfect for his all-out power against the clock. But a parcours well-suited to him and a palmarès boasting a Tour title and a second-place won’t guarantee Thomas the top-slot at the race this summer.

The 34-year-old recently said he’s nervous about Brailsford’s new racing strategy and is coming off the back of an injury – albeit one that didn’t linger as long as Bernal’s. Thomas will be starting the season with uncertainty over his racing legs and his ability to adapt to a pivot in racing tactic having followed the same tried-and-trusted approach since joining the team for its debut season in 2010.

With Thomas facing a contract year and the threat of three grand tour-winning teammates – Bernal, Geoghegan Hart, and Carapaz – with long-term deals and youth on their side, he will need to see some success in 2021. Another grand tour jersey or an Olympic medal could add years to his contract. An anonymous season in 2021 could become the Welshman’s last as a pro rider, and the final nail in the coffin of Team Sky Mk.1, of which he’s the sole remaining survivor.

Thomas will be wanting to prove he’s still relevant in the emerging new version of Ineos Grenadiers, and landing with a bang in Bessèges will put him on the front foot.

Nibali struggled against a field of breakout young stars at the Giro. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Like Thomas, Sicilian star Nibali is at the twilight of his career and facing the pressure of a contract year.

Nibali, now 36, never got the motor running in 2020. Always close, but never close enough, “The Shark” lurked close beneath the surface but never came up to bite, with sixth place at Il Lombardia and seventh at the Giro subpar by his standards. Having blamed his ability to adapt to the topsy-turvy COVID calendar last year, Nibali is again facing a schedule swirling with uncertainty and is attempting to adapt via a whole new approach to his early season.

Although Nibali doesn’t face the internal leadership challenges like Bernal and Thomas, he will similarly need to prove he’s still a player in a peloton that could leave him behind. Last year’s Giro saw him swamped by young talent, and 2021 may see him become anonymous as the new generation presses on.

Has Nibali come out of the off-season back at his best? He shook up a decades-old template by training more intensively over winter and this week in Bessèges will give an early idea of whether the gamble paid off.

If he wants to take the Olympic medal — one of the sole omissions from his brimming palmarès — Nibali needs to be able to keep pace with young Olympic rivals like Tadej Pogačar. Tokyo is his last chance to race at the Games, and a medal would see his pro-life end on a high. A fallow season and joyless rife in Japan could see Nibali’s triumphant career tarnished, and may leave Trek-Segafredo bigwigs trashing any contract renewals they had drafted.

Nibali doesn’t need to be in Olympic form this week in France, but if he struggled to adapt last season, he’ll be looking to start on a positive note with his new reinvented mindset.

Bernal, Thomas, and Nibali all need to grab the bull by the horns at the Etoile de Bessèges this week. Races are falling left, right, and center as COVID continues to claw at European racing. The three have got big ambitions for summer and questions to answer, and they’ll be wanting to come out of this first test with a ‘Pass.’