The case for Bernal
He’s the best climber on the best team in the race.
What, details? Oh, okay then. Egan Arley Bernal is a ridiculous bike rider. He’s been demonstrating that ever since he leapt to the attention of the European fan in 2017 by winning, amongst other glittering prizes, the Avenir. In doing so, he joined Quintana, Chaves and Lopez in an elite quartet of Colombians to win the Tour of the Future and line themselves up for stardom. A move to Team Sky followed, and 2018 saw Bernal win the Oro y Paz race in his native Colombia, as well as the Tour of California, a stage of the Tour of Romandie (in which he was second overall) and his national TT champs. In his first Tour he lost sixteen minutes on the cobbled stage to Roubaix but acquitted himself brilliantly in the mountains, shepherding Geraint Thomas to a maiden win and Chris Froome to the podium.
My favourite Bernal moment so far (and I feel like there will be more) came earlier this season, on a horrible early stage of Paris-Nice. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a cyclist learning, but such was his strength on a flat road he could stay with Michal Kwiatkowski and Luke Rowe while the latter rode like a man possessed. He’d go on to win the overall for good measure. Here’s Seems’ takeaway from that race:
I’ve been giving him [Bernal] (and all of you) an awful lot of shit about the praise you’ve been heaping on the kid and this is the moment where I formally eat my hat. He is the real deal. Not only did he do his job in the mountains, he took chunks of time from his rivals in the time trial and he rode through the wind like a dang classics all-star. He was smart, attentive, let his work-horses do their job and he was tough as nails. I spent most of the autumn and winter making jokes about the legend of Egan Bernal, but his performance this week completely blew up any irony I could go for. He did basically everything right and better than right all week. He’s a future Grand Tour winner and the future could start in as few as two months. Frankly the old guard at Sky should be worried about challenges from within.
He’s just won the Tour de Suisse, too, and is very clearly still improving. I’d back him to stay very close to G in the individual time trial and have more than enough power and nous to stay in the right place through the flat stages. In the mountains? Grab some popcorn. It is very definitely time for the old Guard at Sky and elsewhere to worry.
The case against Bernal
You remember that 2018 Tour I was talking about? The one where Bernal was the #3 man on the Sky team (back before they became Ineos)? Yeah, that’s still his only Grand Tour. Gifted kid is still a kid. He’ll have to fight pressures he’s never seen before if he’s going to win this. He’ll have to find 21 stages of consistency that he’s never needed to display before. Oh, and he’ll have to do it all while the guy next to him is wearing the number one dossard that states in black and white that he’s the mother-pleasing champion.
What’s more, he isn’t supposed to be in France. He’s supposed to be at home, resting up after winning the Giro. A training crash and a broken collarbone meant a rapid change of plans, and but for a Froome injury in the Dauphine we wouldn’t even be talking about him as an Ineos leader. Will the change of plan hurt him? Will he be fit at the right time and have reconnoitred the right roads appropriately? Time will tell. It’d be a lot easier to have confidence if there were years of experience to fall back on, but there really aren’t.
Let me put this more simply: 13 January 1997.
Peeking behind the curtain
The “writers pick a favourite and make the case” idea was mine, and as such I let everyone else pick a rider. I really thought Bernal would go to someone else, and I’d have to do a creative writing piece on why I thought anyone else would win.
I keep hearing about how this is a wide-open Tour. It isn’t. It’s just that it seems that way because the guy who is going to win it cosily is barely old enough to shave, vote or drink. My “case against” is flimsy and Bernal will romp this.
Why the French contingent might be better than you think
When I say the French contingent, officially I mean Romain Bardet and Thibault Pinot. Unofficially I mean Thibault Pinot. I simply don’t think Bardet has improved enough to get onto the top step of the podium. He remains a great climber and a very limited time-triallist. He’s also coming in on the back of his worst ever performance in the Dauphine, a race he’s ridden every year since a debut 5th in 2014. I just think the field has improved around him.
So, Pinot, then. He really might be better than you think and I confess to having had an each-way nibble at 20/1. Why? First because he’s unusual in this race as a rider in his prime with a GT track record and few question marks. Four top tens, and one pneumonia-halted charge on a Giro podium is solid stuff. He’s proved with his riding last autumn that he’s as good as ever in the mountains, and he’s warmed up for this by winning a weak Tour de l’Ain and grabbing an unobtrusive 5th in the Dauphine.
His time trial is good enough (having improved hugely in the last few years) and his team is, I think, the strongest he’s ever enjoyed. Seb Reichenbach and David Gaudu aren’t Ineos-class but they are very capable mountain helpers, whilst Stefan Kung is a good starting point for any TTT set-up.
In a year where it feels very likely that at least one favourite will disappoint, T-Bo comes in with very few warts and the chance to grab his first Tour podium since 2014. I think he’ll do so, and grab a stage win on the way to Paris for good measure.
Three random predictions
1 Top of the team win charts this year will be Jumbo-Visma, with six wins. Groany won’t win green but is the best pure sprinter in the race and can take at least three. Wout can win anywhere he goes. Throw in Tuna, a resurgent Panzerwagon and a trio of climbing talents (Kruise Ship, Bennett and de Plus) plus the new Norwegian champion Jansen and these boys have the skills to be involved every day.
2 Last year, Bernal didn’t take the young rider’s jersey, which was won by Pierre Latour, five minutes ahead of Bernal and 22 ahead of Guillaume Martin. The podium will look different this year (Bernal will be atop it, and both Latour and Martin are age-barred). I have David Gaudu and Enric Mas coming second and third, with Tjesj Benoot, Max Schachmann and Laurens de Plus among those missing out ina higher-quality competition.
3 Looking for a fun bet in the King of the Mountains competition? The aforementioned Bardet is 50/1, which I think is far too big. He could easily be looking for a way to regain relevance after a very early TTT and a relatively early ITT, and he is the sort of rider who could pick up points in bunches, especially if he starts hunting them early.