Words by Sophie Smith | Photo by CorVos/SWpix.com
Losing three seconds on your nearest GC rival, which maglia rosa Egan Bernal did after the Giro d’Italia’s second rest day, I would not call showing “weakness”.
I woke up in Australia to headlines that said or intimated as such on Thursday morning (AEST), following stage 17 in which Bernal couldn’t go with the attacks that reshaped minor placings on the general classification.
Firstly, let’s not forget his effort on the previous stage, the queen stage, where the 24-year-old at the end of a grim and wintry day celebrated a solo victory, so composed that he all but fixed his hair with a fine-tooth comb as he readied for a confident close-up crossing the line. That was after he’d been chased by two chainsaw-wielding fans earlier in the piece too.
It was Bernal’s second stage win of this 104th edition and career second Grand Tour stage win. Yes, that’s right, the Colombian won the Tour de France before winning a stage of any Grand Tour.
Considering the back injury that derailed his Tour title defence last season I can see why pundits would start to read more into his ‘bad’ day, if you want to call it that.
You’ve also got to consider the nature of the Giro. Its third week is notoriously tough and unpredictable. That’s why the majority of sprinters, instead of holding on by the tips of their fingers through the mountain passes to finish in Milan, often bail after the second week.
It’s why the fight for the pink jersey is so encapsulating – nothing is really guaranteed no matter the strength of the team backing you.
This you could argue especially applies to Bernal’s Ineos Grenadiers squad, which has a mixed history at the Giro.
Before Chris Froome’s triumph in 2018 and Tao Geoghegan Hart’s surprise victory at a unique October edition last season, the British team has struggled to make a mark at the race – at least comparative to its feats at cycling’s two other Grand Tours. It couldn’t, prior to Froome’s win, copy and paste its winning formula from the Tour de France and Vuelta a Espana to the Giro, nor tailor a successful one specific to it.
Looking at the way Ineos has supported Bernal at the Giro until now it doesn’t appear that the outfit has made many changes in terms of its usual approach or execution.
However, change is something that team principal David Brailsford referred to heavily during a virtual press conference with trade and international press in January.
Bernal’s resurgence, whatever happens at the Giro now you can still call it that, in some way coincides with that of his team.
Ineos’ 2020 campaign, despite Geoghegan Hart’s run at the Giro and Richard Carapaz’s second place at the Vuelta, was a humbling one. The team not winning the Tour was a bigger statement than if it had won in a year that rival squads if not caught up to then overtook the bluebloods.
On a deeper and more personal level, the tragic passing of respected sports director Nicolas Portal hit hard and the departure of CEO Fran Millar to bigger and better things was also felt.
It coincided with a change in the composition of race teams too. At the Tour especially, the recognisable core group of British riders who have defined the culture of the squad since its inception were substituted for a much more multi-national set. The team selected to support Bernal at the Giro this year consisted of three Italians, one Russian, a Spaniard, fellow Colombian and Ecuadorian. Not a Geraint Thomas, a Luke Rowe, or a native English speaker.
If Ineos didn’t recognise the changes at the time, it had by the end of the campaign.
Brailsford spoke about an off-season of introspection before he revealed Ineos’ Grand Tour plans in January.
“The racing is definitely changing so we’ve got to adapt with the times,” Brailsford had said with enthusiasm.
“The second half of last year the racing was different. We found ourselves in different circumstances where we raced differently and people loved it, people thrived on it, the riders thrived on it. Throughout the whole team the level of performances lifted and it’s a really interesting thing to explore.
“So rather than saying we’re changing, it’s more of a continuation, more of the same, if you like, of where we left off last season and taking that into this season,” he continued.
“We have got a very young group of brilliantly talented riders. We’ve got some riders like Geraint [Thomas] and Richie [Porte], who are at the other end of their careers. I guess, you mix all of that up and over the years become more and more of a Grand Tour specialist team and maybe narrower in our focus. It’s great in terms of you win a lot, potentially, but equally [so is] giving the opportunity of all of the riders in the team, for some of the younger riders to remember how to race to win.”
The reinstatement of Rod Ellingworth and Dan Hunt to management positions has brought a needed sense of familiarity and comfort, at least to Brailsford, that also appears to have filtered down.
Bernal looks surer than he did at the Tour last season and the team now more comfortable with its changed surroundings and internal workings.
When assessing Bernal’s chances of claiming the maglia rosa come the weekend I think more about what Brailsford said of him in January, or even the headline the day before his ‘bad’ day, which was Ineos had all but won the Giro.
“When Egan arrived in Europe and riding in our team, he had a big smile every time he raced. It is the thing you notice first about Egan, is his big smile and the way he raced, he was very aggressive and quite charismatic,” Brailsford had said.
“It’s important that he finds that joy of racing again. So, from my point of view and the team’s point of view and Egan’s point of view, it’s all about getting that smile back on his face. Enjoy being a bike racer, enjoy the sport and racing component and the results, if you do it well, he’ll get the results but not just focus on winning, only on the outcome.
“He’s a very ambitious guy and … we have to support him to really enjoy his racing again. “The rest will look after itself I’m sure of that.”