No alarms and no surprises, please. It was the kind of day every Tour de France contender just wanted to be over. On the long, flat run from Reims to Nancy on stage 4, there was nothing to prove and everything to lose for men like the Team Ineos pairing of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal.
Both riders came through the day safely in the main peloton and they might well have breathed Fernando Escartin’s old mantra from the Tours of the 1990s to themselves as they unclipped from their bikes outside the Ineos bus past the finish line: one day less.
As ever, the Ineos riders warmed down on the turbo trainer after the stage, gazing into the middle distance while a forest of fans and television crews sprouted up around them. A British fan held up an image on a mobile phone screen and called out cheerfully: “This was the last time I saw you, G!” Thomas could surely only barely have seen the screen through the crowd but he smiled politely in acknowledgement all the same. Another day done.
“It was a nice day until 50k to go and then it just went a bit crazy: manic and stressful,” Thomas told reporters after he had completed his warm-down. “I’m happy to get that day ticked off,”
The defending champion Thomas lies 7th overall, 45 seconds down on maillot jaune Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and 5 behind his teammate Egan Bernal. The Colombian youngster earned the rank of co-leader after claiming victory at the Tour de Suisse in June, while Thomas’ Tour preparation suffered a setback when he crashed out of the same race.
Although there are 176 riders in the Tour peloton, Team Sky’s startling dominance in recent years means that there is a nagging sense that the outcome of the race may ultimately hinge on who wins the leadership contest between Thomas and Bernal at what has since been rebranded Team Ineos following the broadcaster’s withdrawal from the sport.
Thomas has the greater experience, but Bernal, for now at least, is the man on form. The point was underlined at Épernay on Monday, when Thomas lost track of Bernal’s wheel on the uphill finish and conceded 5 seconds in the process, but despite those portents, the Welshman maintains that he is ready for the Tour’s first major rendezvous at La Planche des Belles Filles on stage 6.
“Yeah, I’ve been working hard and training hard,” Thomas said. “Stage 6 is more like what you do in training whereas yesterday was more of an explosive finish – so yeah, I’m looking forward to it.”
Even so, Thomas confessed to a degree of relief that ASO have this year shoehorned the bulk of the Tour’s high mountains into the latter part of the race. In theory, at least, it might allow him to feel his way into the race after a truncated build-up, though Thursday’s haul through the Vosges to La Planche des Belles Filles might set the tone for the hierarchy at Ineos.
“Yeah, I guess the way the Tour is works in my favour with the lack of racing I’ve had,” Thomas said. “Stage 6 will be interesting, a nice little test, we’ll see how it is. I’m looking forward to it, having a good hit out. It will be the first test but there’s a lot of bigger stages.”
The Tour has visited La Planche des Belles Filles on three previous occasions. In 2012, Chris Froome’s victory set the tone for Team Sky’s dominance of the race. Two years later, Vincenzo Nibali placed a hefty down payment on overall victory by claiming the summit. In 2017, meanwhile, Froome’s relative struggles on the ascent counted for little by the time he sealed his fourth overall win two and a half weeks later.
This time around, the climb itself features an additional, steep kilometre, and the stage preceding it is a demanding one, with no fewer than six classified ascents crammed into the preceding 150km.
“I think it will be a big day. There’s a lot of climbing before the final climb and that will add to how people are feeling. I’m sure people will try to make the most of it,” Thomas said. “But like I said, I think the other mountaintops are a lot harder – and they’re at the back end of the race as well so they’re a lot harder. But there’ll still be gaps and people will still go hell for leather to try to win the stage.”
Thomas’s teammate Bernal is in only his second year at the British squad, having served notice of his talent with a sparkling spell under the tutelage of Gianni Savio at Androni Giocattoli. This is just his second Grand Tour appearance, after he placed 15th on his debut at La Grande Boucle a year ago, but the Colombian, it seems, is a quick learner.
“If you can sleep an extra hour every day on a Grand Tour, it means you’ve almost slept an extra day by the end of it,” Bernal said on Tuesday. “The little details can make a big difference in the end.”
The seconds he picked up at Epernay on Monday count for little in the here and now, but might mean something more come the end of the race.
Like Thomas, Bernal was glad simply to emerge without incident from Tuesday’s high-speed finale in Nancy. Although the day was one for the sprinters, a delegation from Ineos was prominent towards the head of the peloton in the closing kilometres, mindful of the risk of crashes and splits in the finale.
“It’s very important that the team is strong and rides in the first positions in the finale when the speed is high and there’s a lot of tension in the peloton before the sprint,” Bernal said after he had completed his stint on the turbo trainer. “Tomorrow there are some climbs in the final part of the stage and then Thursday’s stage will be very, very hard. The important thing now is to stay calm and recover well.”