Bernal brilliance means Ineos won't miss Froome
In becoming only the third rider in history (after Sean Kelly in 1983 and Alexandre Vinokourov in 2003) to win Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse in the same season, Egan Bernal has outlined his case to lead Team Ineos in next month's Tour de France.
The Colombian 22-year-old entered the race as deputy for Geraint Thomas, but the Welshman's nasty crash in stage 3 saw him withdraw from the race and raised a huge question mark above his name ahead of the Tour. A question mark which only got bigger in the light of Bernal's accomplished performance in Thomas's absence.
Giro d’Italia LIVE - Stage 1 ITT: Turin – Turin
A stage win at St Gotthard and two podium places on the other big mountain stages were enough for Bernal to better Australia's Rohan Dennis by 19 seconds in the general classification. Bernal even avoided following the example of his calamitous British teammates by staying on his bike during one nail-biting moment in the second time trial.
Mature beyond his years, Bernal has a massive engine to match his sleek climber's physique. In a Tour that only features 27 individual time trial kilometres and goes above 2,000 metres on seven occasions, Bernal is surely going to be more than a Plan B for Ineos – even if, for now, he's keeping his feet on the ground.
Egan Bernal of Team Ineos in yellow during the Tour de Suisse 2019
Image credit: Getty Images
Asked whether he will enter the Tour as favourite to become the third youngest winner in history, Bernal said:
I don't know. I don't choose to say that I'm the favourite. In any case, I will go with G [Thomas] – he will be our leader.
But what followed was telling:
If he's better than me, for sure I will help him. I don't have any problems to help him; I'm just 22 years old so I think that I have a lot of Tours in front of me.
It's a big "if" and one that you sense will have a bearing on the outcome of the Tour. The defending champion will start the Tour in Brussels with just fewer than 26 race days in his legs and zero wins; Bernal has 32 days in his legs and two important stage race victories. The form and momentum is with Bernal, not Thomas, to lead Ineos to further Tour glory.
But the rider is right to remain cautious. He didn't blow Suisse apart and his winning gap over Dennis – who is not considered a bona fide rival for July – was hardly huge. What's more, in the years that Kelly and Vino won Paris-Nice and Suisse they went on to finish seventh and third respectively in the Tour. Time will tell if Bernal has the experience and ability to win the Tour so early in his career.
Dennis will enter Tour as solid foil for Nibali
Bernal's closest threat last week was the Australian Rohan Dennis, who put in a mature performance to finish 19 seconds down. In the past, Dennis' climbing has let him down but the 29-year-old was consistent in the snow-capped high stuff.
A lot of Dennis's strength in the mountains came down to the effective support of teammate Domenico Pozzovivo – a role Dennis will be asked to play for Vincenzo Nibali next month in France.
Third and second in the two big summit finishes, Dennis will feel renewed confidence in his ability in the high mountains – which will be vital in the highest Tour in years.
The lack of time-trialling in the Tour should put pay to any leadership doubts at Bahrain-Merida: Nibali may have already ridden the Giro, but the absence of Froome and Tom Dumoulin will give the Italian renewed hope of a second Tour win. To achieve that, Nibali will need Dennis in this kind of form.
With Morkov and the right lead-out, Viviani could be unbeatable again
What a difference a few weeks make. Last month in his home Tour, Elia Viviani was a shadow of his self, the Italian imploding dramatically after being stripped of what most people expected to be the first of many wins.
The problem in Italy – besides the Italian's dip in confidence – appeared to be Viviani's lack of support, or lack of trust in his train. Instead of launching from the wheels of a fellow Deceuninck-QuickStep rider, Viviani opted to follow his rivals and take them on mano-a-mano. Only he wasn't as strong as Pascal Ackerman et al.
At one point, Viviani even lamented the absence of his regular pilot Michael Morkov. The veteran Dane was back in the mix at Suisse and it was no surprise that Viviani got back to winning ways – picking up back-to-back wins after missing out in stage 3 to Peter Sagan.
With Max Richeze – another absentee from Viviani's ill-feted Giro – also in the frame for a Tour spot following a successful week alongside the Italian and Morkov in Switzerland, you sense that it's not a question of if Viviani will net a maiden Tour stage win, but when.
Mas set for baptism of fire at maiden Tour
After finishing third in last year's Vuelta, Enric Mas is expected to make ripples in his debut Tour this July. But the Spanish 24-year-old will find himself in the same water as Dan Martin was previously: trying to win mountain stages and place high on GC for a team like QuickStep whose primary focus will be sprint victories for Viviani, not to mention Julian Alaphilippe's defence of his polka dot jersey.
Mas has struggled to kick on from his breakthrough 2018 with no wins so far this season and some difficult days in the Swiss Alps. He put in a spirited early attack on the cobbled hairpins of the glorious Gotthard Pass in stage 7 but this came to nothing once Bernal threw down the hammer behind.
Seen as Spain's natural successor to Alberto Contador, even Mas will admit that there's more Bertie in Bernal than there is in himself. The focus on Viviani and Alaphilippe may suit Mas just fine in the Tour; but he may also find his opportunities limited. But chalk this one down as experience in preparation for the Vuelta later in the summer, and Mas can only benefit from the next month or so.
Sagan coming to the boil at the right time
The former triple world champion has not exactly had the kind of year we would expect from someone of his calibre, but recent form suggests that Peter Sagan is finally hitting his stride.
That Bora-Hansgrohe have been one of the stand-out teams of the season is all the more impressive given they have largely done so without any positive impact from the Slovakian showman. But that may all change in July, when Sagan will bid to make history with a seventh green jersey.
After a solid seventh place in the opening ITT, Sagan went on to finish in the top three in the next four stages, picking up his third win of the season in stage 3 after a supreme display of strength, positioning, split-second decision-making and speed.
The way Sagan shouldered past John Degenkolb to latch onto the wheel of the German's Trek teammate Jasper Stuyven's wheel before powering clear to the line was a thing of beauty – although try telling Degenkolb that.
Sagan has now won at least one stage in every edition of the Tour de Suisse since 2011 – a total of 17 wins to date. And after the eighth points jersey of his career, Sagan will be in the prime position to take a ninth (and record-breaking seventh) in the Tour next month.
Degenkolb may miss out as Trek go all-in for Porte
John Degenkolb criticised Sagan for his aggression in the stage 3 finale, claiming the Slovakian went "a little bit over the limit" as the two went shoulder-to-shoulder for position.
To be fair to Sagan, the replays clearly show Degenkolb landing the first blow. But watch on and witness Stuyven's delicious frustration as he turns round and sees Sagan in his wake, and not the man who's meant to be there.
It is perhaps for this reason that Trek-Segafredo are not opting to take Degenkolb to the Tour next month. With the focus on Richie Porte for yellow and, perhaps, a free role for Giulio Ciccone in the mountains, there's no room for a sprinter who has lost his cutting edge.
It's a big set-back for Degenkolb, who has ridden every Tour since making his debut in 2013. But with the 30-year-old's only win coming last year at Roubaix – and no cobbles featuring on the parcours – perhaps he can have few arguments with the decision. After all, to win a sprint stage in the Tour it will be necessary to hold that man Sagan at bay.
Matthews left flummoxed by Dumoulin's absence
Another rider in the Sagan-Degenkolb mould who has been left unsure of his status ahead of the Tour is Australia's Michael Matthews. While Matthews' plight is not as bad as Degenkolb's, he won't be as assured as Sagan – even if he did time his lunge better to deny the Slovakian second place in stage 4 behind Viviani.
Matthews' problem is quite simple: he entered this season apparently sacrificing his personal ambitions for the Tour to build his training around supporting Team Sunweb leader Tom Dumoulin in his GC bid. But the Dutchman's withdrawal this week from the Tour – following his knee injury sustained in the Giro – means Sunweb's plans have been turned upside down.
You would think that Matthews' duties will still involve putting in shifts for Wilco Kelderman – Dumoulin's deputy – next month. But with less pressure for Sunweb to deliver the yellow, the door has been opened for the 28-year-old Australian to contest the sprints and, perhaps, put in a bid for the green jersey he won in 2017.
Instead of relishing this opportunity, a downcast Matthews bizarrely came out last week with a claim that the circumstances had left him "totally confused… I don't know where to go from here."
"I haven’t done any sprint training or any training that was preparing myself for my stages, and there are quite a lot of stages that do suit me," Matthews told Dutch broadcaster NOS.
But instead of admitting that it was exciting, or challenging, Matthews labelled the development as "massively disappointing".
While you can appreciate his frustration – after all, Matthews had been set to ride the Giro before Dumoulin decided to add it to his programme – it's much be a sign of the Australian's confidence that, instead of relishing the chance to compete with Sagan for green, he seems to be shying away from it.
Old-school Carthy goes solo to become king of the mountain
In last month's Giro, 24-year-old Hugh Carthy constantly rode off the front of the elite group of favourites but to very little end except a solid eleventh place on GC. All that changed on Sunday when the youngster from Preston channelled his inner Claudio Chiappucci with a 95km solo raid over the Nufenenpass, San Gottardo and Furkapass for a maiden WorldTour win.
It was an old-school move with echoes of Chris Froome's stage 19 coup from last year's Giro – but with one telling difference: this was a move not to snare the leader's jersey or rise up the standings, but rather to win a stage, gloriously, for the sake of it. In the words of his manager Jonathan Vaughers: cojones grandes.
Prior to Sunday's stage 9 to Goms, Carthy hadn't finished higher than 20th throughout the race. He clearly targeted the queen stage and delivered the goods, knowing that his move would not be chased by the likes of Bernal and Dennis behind.
It was Carthy's fifth (but by far biggest and most emotional) career win and first in three years – and just deserts for a rider who has come on leaps and bounds this year in the pink-and-purple of EF Education First.
And finally, don't forget...
Belgium's Tiesj Benoot put in a solid if unspectacular race to finish fourth overall amid talk of his whereabouts next season. Benoot's contract with Lotto Soudal runs out at the end of the year and both Ineos and Sunweb are said to be interested in securing the 25-year-old's signature. With a third Tour appearance on the cards, it's going to be a big month for Benoot.
Dutchman Antwan Tolhoek came of age to solo to glory in stage 6 at Flumersberg, the 25-year-old holding off a chasing Bernal to take his first win as a pro. Given his age and relative inexperience, his sponsors at Jumbo-Visma will forgive him forgetting to zip up his jersey. The win was certainly great payback for all the hard work Tolhoek did for Primoz Roglic during the Giro.
Austria's Patrick Konrad underlined Bora-Hansgrohe's strength in depth by taking the third spot on the final podium, which shouldn't do the 27-year-old's Tour selection chances any harm.
Meanwhile, it was back to racing for Italy's Fabio Aru, who put in his first performance for UAE Team Emirates since withdrawing from Paris-Nice to receive angioplasty surgery after being diagnosed with a constriction of the iliac artery.
Aru hardly set the race on fire – and is not expected to ride the Tour – but completion of his longest stage race since last year's Vuelta will put the Sardinian on course to return at the Spanish tour later this summer.
Later this week we begin our Tour de France countdown with the first of a series of blogs looking at each of the jersey competitions in the 2019 Grande Boucle, which gets under way in Brussels on Saturday 6th July.
Giro d'Italia jersey rankings and standings
'I have a choice' - Sagan plays down next move ahead of Giro