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What’s everyone's problem with Egan Bernal?

20 Aug 2020

When the information filtered through early on Thursday morning that neither four-time champion Chris Froome nor 2018 winner Geraint Thomas would be racing the Tour de France for Team Ineos this August, it seemed to have knocked the British cycling fandom for six.

Team manager Dave Brailsford had made a massive call, potentially the biggest one he has ever made in his tenure in charge of the British WorldTour team. Leave a combined eight Grand Tours at home in the form of two of the team’s most loyal and successful team servants, in place of new, international blood.

Now, Thomas will be dispatched to the Giro d’Italia while and Froome will end his tenure with the team at the Vuelta a Espana as Brailsford’s men head to Le Tour without a British team leader for the first time in their history.

The backlash directed towards Team Ineos over the past 24 hours for not taking a British rider to compete for the General Classification was to be expected. It is a British team with a British owner and the fans, who are almost exclusively from the UK, have become used to a home rider, whether that be Froome, Thomas or Bradley Wiggins, wearing the flag proudly for a lap of France.

They are also used to experiencing victory, seven yellows in eight Tours is testament to that.

For a lot of these fans, many who caught the cycling bug in 2012 after Wiggins and the Olympics Games, they are yet to experience a Tour in which it starts without a home rider as favourite and for those fans, the blame for that lays with Team Ineos.

Regardless of circumstances, by leaving Thomas and Froome at home, they feel that Ineos are stripping the team of their British heartbeat and effectively negating any interest in the race for those watching on ITV4 at home.

What has taken me by surprise more, however, is the barbs being pointed by these same ‘Team Ineos fans’ towards defending champion Bernal.

Look at the replies to Team Ineos’s Tour announcement, and under our following story, and you would have thought the 22-year-old Colombian was somehow the architect of Thomas and Froome’s snub.

Plenty are trying to point out how lucky Bernal was to win the 2019 Tour, winner by proxy after two shortened stages badly affected by the weather. ‘Thomas would have won if those stages hadn’t been shortened,’ they like to claim.

The rider who won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse earlier that season and was tipped by almost everybody as the next Tour de Force in Grand Tour racing apparently got lucky because of some bad weather and Thomas playing ‘the long game’.

And now, unable to deal with the absence of ‘G’ or ‘Froomey’ at the Tour this year, they point the finger at the rider in their place, Bernal, and declare that this act of ‘disloyalty’ and ‘disrespect’ was part of some clandestine Latino master plan and has made ‘rooting for Team Ineos impossible’.

Well, I think this needs setting straight.

Criterium du Woeful

Did we all watch the Dauphine last week? I did, fairly closely, and Team Ineos were woeful. Harsh but considering the utter dominance we are accustomed to from them, they were.

This is the team with the biggest budget in professional cycling, gearing their entire resources towards peak performance at one race, the Tour, stuttering at the final warm-up. It was like Usain Bolt hobbling across the line of the Olympic 100m semi-final in third spot holding his hamstring.

Chief among the underwhelming performances was Thomas. Froome has excuses – he is coming back from a crash that almost ended his career – but there are no excuses for the Welshman rolling in 37th, 53 minutes down.

‘Oh, but he hasn’t raced much’... well, nor has anybody else and yet look at how well Tom Dumoulin went at the Dauphine after over 420 days without competition. And this is not a dig to the ribs of Thomas. I like him, I think he is an excellent rider capable of remarkable results, as he has so often proved.

But based on their performances at the Dauphine, he and Froome do not deserve a spot at the Tour, let alone as joint leaders, regardless of history.

Let’s not forget, Brailsford is a lot of things but he is not a sentimentalist. Can I remind everyone of the 2013 Tour de France? Poster boy Wiggins, the defending Tour champion and Olympic hero, was left to sulk at home while Froome was given his fair crack of the whip, solo.

Brailsford made a call seven years ago that loyalty does not win Grand Tours, form does. He is just making that decision again albeit backing a Colombian rather than a Brit, which seems to be the issue for some.

Team Sky was originally created over a decade ago to make history, guide a British rider to a maiden Tour yellow jersey, not act as a puffed chest of patriotism in a sport it had suddenly realised it was good at.

It made that history pretty quickly and then pivoted to a new objective, being the most dominant force in Tour de France history – something it has done pretty successfully up to now.

The eight riders that Brailsford has picked for the Tour are the best at Team Ineos’s disposal right now and have the best chance at continuing that dominance.

Regardless of abandoning the Dauphine with supposed back issues, Bernal is the best chance Ineos have of winning an eighth yellow jersey. He took last year’s title, fair and square, and stood almost toe-to-toe with his main rival, Primoz Roglic, at the Tour de l’Ain.

Richard Carapaz’s late minute drafting makes complete sense considering how he has raced since the return and the reliance on young Pavel Sivakov is earned with his performances in mind. The rest of the team are simply among the best at doing what they do, controlling the race before the mountains.

Pick this team as a meritocracy and even Thomas and Froome would admit there is no place for them and it’s time the fans realise that.

And if not, despite my yearning desire for a new face to succeed at cycling’s biggest race this year, part of me hopes that Bernal proves all of his doubters wrong.