With the Tour de France and the rest of the 2020 calendar now rescheduled, thoughts will turn once again to the good old Team Ineos leadership question, and on Thursday Egan Bernal issued what was taken in the Colombian media as a ‘warning’ to his teammates Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.
Bernal became the youngest Tour winner in more than 100 years when he triumphed last year, with 2018 winner Thomas settling for second place. Both will target the Tour once again this year, along with four-time winner Chris Froome, for whom the postponement to late August is an advantage in the context of his comeback from the injuries that kept him out of last year’s Tour.
Speaking to Alberto Contador on Eurosport Espana, Bernal trotted out the customary party line that 'the road will decide' but also spoke strongly about his own status and how he’s not prepared to simply sacrifice himself and "throw away an opportunity" to win another yellow jersey.
"I clearly understand the team in this situation. For them, let’s say, it could be interesting to win a fifth Tour de France with Chris, or another Tour with Geraint Thomas. At the end of the day, they are two British riders, and it’s a British team, and that’s something important for them, so I understand, let’s say, the position of the team,"
"I also understand the position of Geraint Thomas, who wants to win his second Tour. In the past two Tours he was first and second so he’s a rider that very much has to be taken into account. I also understand Chris Froome, who wants to win his fifth Tour. Given everything that has happened to him, it would be the best way to come back for him.
"But I also put myself in a position. I’m young, I’ve already won one Tour de France, and I’m not going to throw away an opportunity to win another Tour de France, that’s for sure. That I would sacrifice myself, being at my 100 per cent… I don’t think I’m going to do that, nor will he, nor will anyone."
Bernal also confirmed he will focus squarely on the Tour de France, dismissing the idea of planning to go on and ride the Vuelta a España in late October and November.
With Bernal resolute in his own position, and aware that Froome and Thomas are the same in theirs, something will have to give at some point on the road of France in September.
The 22-year-old insisted that, first of all, it will depend on the condition each riders takes to the start line in Nice on August 29 after a most unusual spring and summer, after which the race circumstances will have the final say.
"What I think is going to happen is we wait to see how each rider arrives at the Tour. We haven’t raced, so we don’t know how we’ll arrive. For me, what the team’s doing is very good – waiting to see how each rider arrives and then, it might sound trite, but the road will put everyone in their place,"
"Once the first stages are out of the way, we’re quickly going to see what position Froome’s in, what position I’m in, and what position Thomas is in, and little by little the outlook will be clearer. In this moment in time, even as the last champion of the Tour, I can’t go to the team and tell them I’m the only leader, because, as I said, I understand there’s Froome and Thomas and I understand the position of the team"
"At the moment, it’s a question of having a cool head, focusing on training, trying to do things as well as possible, get to the Tour and then things will fall into place."
From the tone and content of Bernal's statements, he sounds confident, measured and self-assured. Whilst remaining a team player, and toeing the Ineos lines, he also seems like he has grown into the role of current TdF champ - knowing his worth. We all know Ineos will field a strong team with multiple leadership options, and Bernal appears to be quietly ready to sit his own ground and will not relinquish his title too easily... Also with the knowledge that he still has 3 years left on his 5-year contract, and is only 23 years old - a full 10 years younger than Thomas, and 11 years younger than Froome.
Froome, with a double point to prove. At the latter-stages of his peak, returning from a potentially career-ending crash to compete back at the highest level, along with the goal of joining the hallowed 5-Tour Group - riders with 5 Tour wins on their palmarés.
But with Thomas 1st, and then 2nd at the Tour, and desperate to remain at the sharp end of winning and not fade to grey, he will also be gunning for the protected role.
Although a luxurious position to be in, we actually think this could be an even more complicated decision than usual for Sir Dave Brailsford and the rest of the leadership and management team and even the riders themselves. Sir Dave & Ineos have always championed winning over pretty much anything else, so will they back whomever 'the road' chooses at the time, or will we see another Froome/Wiggins incident like in 2012...