In hindsight, the writing was on the wall a month ago when Egan Bernal’s back first started plaguing him, at the Criterium du Dauphine. That, and the lack of decent form of both Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, left Dave Brailsford and his Ineos Grenadiers scratching their heads.
How, with a team cracking in multiple areas, and faced by the power plays of Jumbo-Visma, could they steady the ship and still win the Tour?
Uncharacteristically, Brailsford took a gamble. He dropped his biggest stars, Froome and Thomas, unexpectedly drafted in Richard Carapaz, who had been working towards the Giro, opted for a ‘collective’ management style and hoped it would all come together. We found out this afternoon that it very definitely hasn’t.
All of these things — the uncertainty over Bernal’s fitness, the absence of the team’s most experienced Grand Tour champions, the loss of Nicolas Portal (the charismatic sports director who died suddenly last spring), the lack of tactical clarity apparent in earlier stages, and the daunting firepower of the Jumbo-Visma team — hit home with unflinching force this afternoon as Bernal, finally, definitively cracked, four kilometres into the climb of the Grand Colombier.
Once he let go of Primoz Roglic’s well-drilled train, the gap became a gulf that became a chasm. Bernal, cut adrift from the main contenders, could only shake his head and grimace.
The Colombian had tried hard and put a brave face on things as the Tour started but even back at Orcieres-Merlette, when Jumbo-Visma first showed their collective strength, things weren’t right in the Ineos camp. “We would have liked more riders up there,” said team captain Luke Rowe, after that stage. Pavel Sivakov’s injuries, sustained in the rain in Nice, were another handicap.
In fact, what was initially waived away as a one-off, became a pattern, first at Mont Aigoual, then in the Pyrenees and finally, catastrophically, on the Grand Colombier on a hot autumn afternoon, as Bernal’s last hopes finally evaporated into the mountain air.
The ‘Skytrain,’ the collective insurance policy that had swept Bradley Wiggins, Froome and Thomas to all those Grand Tour wins, is now gone. Instead, there are some new kids in town, in yellow and black. They’re not taking any prisoners.
At Ineos, all was disarray and confusion, with previously reliable climbers such as Andrey Amador and Carapaz, missing in action, and Michal Kwiatkowski proving Bernal’s most steadfast team mate.
Inevitably, there will be an inquest, both public and private.
In Britain, the years of success made Team Sky a household name, but the all-conquering lustre has faded a little recently, both because of the scepticism towards Wiggins’s success, and the change of team ownership to a controversial proprietor, Jim Ratcliffe, who despite all his investments in British sport, is seen as distant and aloof from the British public.
Whatever his qualities, Bernal’s name has less resonance with a general British sports audience reared on Wiggins, Thomas and Froome as their heroes. Now the Colombian has faltered, Adam Yates is waiting in the wings and Thomas and Froome have a point to prove. No wonder Bernal told the Spanish media that he had “lost three years of my life” in those final agonising 13 kilometres.
Right now, it feels as if Ineos are in transition and — compared to the teams in past seasons — have too many chiefs and not enough Indians. There is plenty of young talent there: Bernal of course, Pavel Sivakov, Carapaz and developing riders like Tao Geoghegan Hart. In less than four months, you can add Adam Yates’s name to that list.
But what of Bernal? His first Tour win was greeted with the same kind of hype that accompanied Jan Ullrich’s one and only win in 1997. The German, it was said back then, could win multiple Tours, maybe even five, such was his potential. But then came fame and wealth, injury, lack off form, the paparazzi and a vengeful whirlwind from Texas called Lance Armstrong.
There is no debate now that Roglic has been stronger this Tour, but he may also prove to be Bernal’s long-term nemesis, the cold assassin who thwarts his best-laid plans. Suddenly a second Tour win for Bernal looks a distant prospect. The irony for Bernal and Brailsford of course, as they lick their wounds and regroup during the second rest day, is that Jumbo-Visma are only doing to them what they themselves did to every other team in the Tour de France for the best part of a decade.