Egan Bernal may not appear overly concerned with his form ahead of the Tour de France, but after finishing behind Primož Roglič in the Tour de l’Ain and seeing his team routinely outclassed by Jumbo-Visma, the defending Tour de France champion has plenty to ponder ahead of this week’s Critérium du Dauphiné.
The outlook within the Ineos camp will be far from bleak, but the stark reality is that Jumbo-Visma outmuscled and outclassed them in virtually every department during the three-day test in France, and at no point did the Ineos trifecta of Bernal, Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas look close to their very best. Just look at the stats: Roglic won two stages and the overall, while his team had three riders in the top five. Thomas and Froome played domestique roles, but they finished 21 and 26 minutes off the pace, respectively.
At the same time, Jumbo-Visma repeatedly rode as a cohesive unit. George Bennett was as dependable as ever, Steven Kruijswijk laid down cover fire on stage 2 as he stretched Team Ineos on the final climb, and Tom Dumoulin showed progress as the race wore on.
After over a year without competition, the former Giro d’Italia winner shows no signs of the knee injury that plagued him in 2019 but the most gratifying aspect for the Dutch outfit was undoubtedly Roglič's performance. But for Andrea Bagioli’s late dash for the line on the opening day, the Slovenian would have won all three stages in the race, and the way he outshone Bernal on every single climb will have rattled Dave Brailsford.
Jumbo-Visma could also use their Tour de l’Ain outing as a way of gauging their team and improving their confidence. This was the first time their front three of Roglič, Kruijswijk, and Dumoulin have raced together, and the precious time together on the roads of France will have afforded them the chance to test out line-ups and tactics. Whatever lessons that were learned at the Tour de l’Ain can now be improved upon and tweaked in the weeks leading up to the Tour.
Above all, Roglič and his cohorts now hold all-important momentum with the Tour less than three weeks away. The fact that they still have Sepp Kuss and Wout van Aert to come in for the Tour will only strengthen their armory.
Questions facing Ineos
Over at Team Ineos, it’s too early and somewhat pointless to press the panic button at this point. We’ve seen the team face similar questions over form in the build-up to the Tour de France only to step up their game at the main event. It’s worth remembering that Geraint Thomas crashed heavily at the Tour de Suisse last year and showed little in the way of form but he still managed to ride himself into second place by the time the Tour reached Paris.
This time around, however, the Welshman can’t fall back on injury or bad luck. On stage 3 of the Tour de l’Ain – when Ineos tried to bring the fight to Jumbo Visma – Thomas was burnt off the front before the final climb. He was forced into action earlier than his team would have liked due to Tao Geoghegan Hart’s crash, but by the time the race reached the lower slopes of the Grand Colombier, Ineos and Jumbo-Visma had four riders apiece.
Impressive rides from Andrey Amador and Jonathan Castroviejo will have calmed the Ineos hierarchy – and perhaps ensured that both riders will make the squad’s Tour team – but the pair were unable to drop a single Jumbo-Visma rider on the final ascent.
Froome's performance on stage 3, meanwhile, showed promise. He was put to work on the earlier climbs but was able to hang around until the final ascent, where his pace-setting lasted roughly three kilometres, and at times he strung out the leading group. The four-time Tour winner demonstrated that he is slowly improving but when Bernal was isolated for a second day in succession, he found himself up against three Jumbo riders.
While’s Thomas’ questionable form has gone somewhat under the radar – mainly due to the suffocating nature of Froome’s transfer status – he will undoubtedly be selected for the Tour de France. Froome should also make the grade. At times on stage 3 he appeared to ride alongside Bernal and offer words of encouragement, and while the Colombian needs no babysitter, having a multiple Grand Tour winner alongside you is an invaluable asset if loyalties are clear from the outset.
The team will of course be boosted by the return of Pavel Sivakov, who played such a crucial role in Bernal’s dominant win at La Route d’Occitainie, but even if the Russian is flying at the Tour, the numbers are stacked in Roglič's favour.
The three-leader myth
For all of the talk about multiple leaders the race came down to a straight shoot-out between Bernal and Roglič. Whether or not these two are still the designated leaders when the Tour reaches its critical third week remains to be seen, but for now, they are both squad’s plan-A.
At this moment in time Roglič has the edge. Bernal looked beatable on the final climb of stage 3, often drifting to the back and having to make up ground. Dumoulin put him under pressure towards the summit, and even when the Colombian rallied he still had no response when Roglič stamped on the pedals as the finish line approached.
It seems somewhat bizarre that Ineos, a team that prides themselves on structures, plans and claiming to know more than their rivals, have allowed such a chasm to open up between themselves and Jumbo-Visma over such a short period of time.
Riders out of form, question marks over line-ups and now added concern over Richard Carapaz’s Giro plans after his crash in Poland – it feels as though the momentum in power is shifting. However, the caveat to all of this is that the Tour de l’Ain is not the Tour de France.
Pressure will mount, and posting three days of consistency in early August will mean very little once the peloton is racing in the mountains of the Tour. There will be other challengers, greater obstacles and Ineos, for all the current uncertainty, know how to win the Tour de France.
The Dauphiné will provide a more detailed analysis of the two teams and their progress towards the Tour and while it’s far too early to write off Ineos and Bernal and their tag as favourites, the race for the yellow jersey is wide open for the first time in years.