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Tour de France 2020: Egan Bernal must beat Primoz Roglic, the road and his own body to keep his crown

The Slovenian Jumbo-Visma rider Primoz Roglic has seemed imperious in the build-up to the Tour de France and is the most likely rider to break the stranglehold of Sir Dave Brailsford’s Sky/Ineos teams

Lawrence Ostlere
Friday 28 August 2020 12:39 BST
Chris Froome in profile

For the first time in nearly a decade, Team Ineos/Sky will roll to the start line of the Tour de France without the race favourite among them. Egan Bernal is the reigning champion and will lead their charge, but it is Primoz Roglic, the Slovenian former ski jumper who won last year’s Vuelta a Espana, who begins with the shortest odds to win yellow in Paris on 20 September.

Roglic was touch and go to even start this Tour, which begins on Saturday in Nice with distancing rules in place to keep limited fans and cut-off riders well apart, after he and just about everyone else left the Criterium du Dauphine with injuries earlier this month, but revealed on Thursday that he had recovered from his heavy fall. “I feel fine,” he said. “I’m here at the Tour start now, so that’s good news. It’s been a different plan because we didn’t plan to have this complicated start with the crash and it took some time to restart and do the things I wanted to, but in the last days I managed it.”

The 30-year-old has looked imperious since cycling’s return, beating Bernal to win Tour de l’Ain and dominating the Dauphine before his crash and subsequent abandonment. Body allowing, he has a great chance of breaking the Sky/Ineos stranglehold and winning the Tour de France, and it is Roglic’s form which partly explains why it will also be the first time in nearly a decade that neither Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas will start the race.

As Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford watched the Slovene’s slick performances over the past few weeks, it made up his mind that there was no room for passengers in this fight. Froome and Thomas have been well off the pace – too weak to be worth protecting, but too gloried to be offered as sacrificial lambs for Bernal’s challenge. So while Froome and Thomas instead prepare for the Vuelta a Espana and Giro d’Italia respectively, Brailsford will lead a largely non-British team into battle, with only road captain Luke Rowe representing Ineos’s home country.

Behind Bernal as Ineos’s No2 will be Richard Carapaz, the Ecuadorian former Giro winner who grew up riding in the hills of Bernal’s native Colombia, while the young Russian Pavel Sivakov may also play a key role racing Jumbo in the mountains, just as Bernal did for Thomas two years ago.

Roglic is one of the favourites for the Tour de France (AFP)

Like Roglic, Bernal is fighting a fitness battle, and says he still carries his injury two weeks after his own withdrawal from the Dauphine. “I feel a little bit of pain in the back to be honest,” Bernal said on Friday. “I’m much better than I was in the Dauphine, in the Dauphine it was really bad, the pain. But these days I’m feeling much better and I hope during the whole Tour to be working hard and trying to recover, especially for the last week.”

The focus will be on Roglic vs Bernal, but much will depend on their support acts. Roglic will be without his most reliable lieutenant, Steven Kruijswijk, another casualty of the Dauphine, but in the 25-year-old American Sepp Kuss he has a brilliant protector and will benefit from another underrated domestique, the Kiwi George Bennett. Bernal must lean on the experience of Ineos’s Michal Kwiatkowski and the commitment of Dylan Van Baal to fight back.

But perhaps more interesting is how their back-up leaders slot in to the race. Both Carapaz and Jumbo’s Tom Dumoulin are former Grand Tour winners in their own right, with their own ambitions of one day winning the yellow jersey. Carapaz was even framed by Brailsford as a kind of co-leader when his place in the Tour was announced. Will they be prepared to sacrifice potential podium places to protect their leader’s interests? For all the power and guts that the Tour requires, the ability to foster team harmony on a bus over three torturous weeks remains an instrumental facet, one Brailsford has often mastered with a surprisingly deft touch. The mind games have already begun, with Brailsford insisting this week that the pressure is not on the young champion Bernal but on older riders like Roglic and Dumoulin to finally deliver.

There are so many sub-plots, like Thibaut Pinot still hopelessly chasing French glory, nine potential sprint stages to be fought for by riders including the sensational Wout van Aert and the out-of-sorts Peter Sagan, and the potential for more thrills from last year’s entertainer Julian Alaphilippe. But the headline act is Roglic vs Bernal: they will be fighting their bodies more than each other in the opening days, but ultimately the Tour is a battle with the road itself.

Roglic must build a lead before they reach the Alps if he is to win his first yellow jersey; Bernal must carry a lead into the final time trial if he is to retain his crown. It may well be too much for a 23-year-old nursing a back injury, and after so many complaints about Sky and Ineos’s robotic domination of this race over the years, the only irony is there will be so few getting up close to see it.

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