Egan Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers in desperate need of a Tour de France stage win
Out of the yellow jersey battle before the Alps and now finishing in the gruppetto… the best thing for Egan Bernal's career right now would be a stage win on the Col de la Loze. For Ineos Grenadiers, any win would do after a drought stretching back two years.
Pierre Rolland and Egan Bernal during Stage 15 of the Tour de France 2020
Published 15/09/2020 at 19:38 GMT | Updated 15/09/2020 at 19:39 GMT
It's been a long time since we have seen a defending champion blow up in the same way as Egan Bernal on the Tour de France. You probably have to go back to 1996 – although even Miguel Indurain's losses to Bjarne Riis that year, as era-ending as they were, paled into comparison with Bernal's blow-up on the Grand Colombier.
The Tour's second rest day was a chance for the Ineos Grenadiers to reassess, recalibrate, and come back with a different game plan. That meant, in short, stage wins.
For all Ineos' Grand Tour dominance, the team's last stage win on the world's biggest bike race – in any of cycling's Grand Tours for that matter – came courtesy of Geraint Thomas on Alpe d'Huez in 2018, the second of two back-to-back wins for the Welshman.
Stage 16 highlights - Breakaway success for Kamna as Pogacar and Roglic duke it out
Considering Tadej Pogacar himself has won five stages since making his debut in the Vuelta last year – that's 2019 – it's a very poor record for the team with the biggest budget in cycling.
Of course, it's also a bit of a skewered stat since Bernal could – and probably would – have won Stage 19 to Tignes last year had those hailstones not caused the race to be curtailed while he was out in front alongside Simon Yates.
Victory that day in Tignes should have added the gloss to Bernal becoming the first Colombian to win the Tour de France. As it stood, the events that day instead clouded that milestone, added an element of "what if" and left many believing that Bernal, while a likeable champion and indubitable talent, had not won the race fair and square.
Fast forward one year and things are very different. Bernal has found himself elevated to top-dog status at Ineos Grenadiers without, perhaps, earning his stripes. Although the defending champion, was it a bit too early in Bernal's still burgeoning career to make him a leader? Looking at his performances and demeanour, he certainly lacks the authority that you see in someone like Primoz Roglic, like you saw in his absent predecessors at Ineos, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
The back injury which caused Bernal to withdraw from the Dauphiné – one that was caused, it has been claimed, by overtraining during the lockdown – took its toll on the Colombian on the Giant of the Jura as Bernal came home over seven minutes down.
It was always going to be interesting to see how he – and Ineos – bounced back on Tuesday.
They certainly looked up for the fight – putting four riders in an early move, and then three riders in the move which stuck. Andrey Amador paved the way for Richard Carapaz's big attack on the penultimate climb of the day, while Pavel Sivakov rode to a solid fourth place – crossing the line in the belief that his Ecuadorian teammate had actually won Stage 16 in Villard-de-Lans.
That was not the case. Carapaz may have been riding so much better for himself than he had been able to ride in support of Bernal for the previous fortnight, but it was not enough to deny the impressive German tyro Lennard Kamna.
Bernal, meanwhile, was off the back and riding with Sam Bennett and Andre Greipel in the gruppetto – the defending champion reduced to pulling faces at the camera and throwing out water bottles to road-side fans. He eventually came home over 10 minutes down on the yellow jersey group and now lies 18 minutes in arrears.
Generous Bernal throws bottle straight to a fan
At first, there was speculation that he had lost time on purpose ahead of an assault on the queen stage of the race. You could almost imagine the bookies calling off all bets on Bernal finally getting the monkey off his back on Wednesday. But then the man himself spoke – and he cut a forlorn figure as he did so.
"Today I was suffering all day with back pain and it was increasing," Bernal told ITV. "In the last climb it switched to my knee. I'm f***ed up on all sides. If I continue like this, it will be difficult to fight for the stage on the Col de la Loze, which is a very hard climb, with a lot of steep gradients."
Of course, it could be bluff – Bernal underplaying his hand before riding clear of the field ahead of the Col de la Madeleine, which precedes the unprecedented climb on the new Loze cycle path above Meribel in the 170km stage from Grenoble.
But looking at the wretched Bernal, it's hard to even consider the 23-year-old capable of successfully bluffing even a hand of cards right now.
Ineos leader Bernal loses more time at the Tour... but this time is it on purpose?
Kamna's victory on Tuesday was the latest in line of wins from the Tour's new generation. In the past weeks we have seen wins from Pogacar (21), Marc Hirschi (22), Dani Martinez (24), Wout van Aert (25) and 26-year-olds Caleb Ewan, Nans Peters and Soren Kragh Andersen. Indeed, besides Primoz Roglic (30), the only two rider above 30-years-old to win a stage was Alexander Kristoff (33) on the opening day.
Bernal is one of the biggest talents of his generation. Seeing him suffer as he is right now, it's only too easy to forget that we were talking about him dominating the Tour for a decade this time last year. He may well do that. But if he does, he will need to start winning stages.
The Col de la Loze would be the perfect place to start doing that – even if Bernal is well and truly out of the GC picture. As David Brailsford said ahead of Stage 16: "This is the first day of trying to win the Tour de France next year."
In that respect, it didn't go so well for Bernal. But if he can salvage his Tour with a win on Wednesday, that would put him in a far better position going forward than fighting for a meaningless top 10 finish on GC.
Cycling has changed. Just look at Roglic and Pogacar. You need to win stages now if you want to win races. Bernal will win the Tour de France again – and when he does, he will have to do so by putting in commanding performances that put him on the top of the podium during the race, not just in Paris.