Brailsford's Tour de France reign on edge
After seven Tour de France victories in eight years, the Ineos reign is being challenged by a powerful Jumbo team that holds the overall lead and most of the aces with seven of 21 stages remaining.
The relentless form of Jumbo's powerhouse leader Primoz Roglic means 2019 champion Egan Bernal must produce something special in the high mountains ahead.
Yet given the difficulty of the rest of this 2020 route Ineos and Bernal are far from finished, Roglic said on Saturday.
Dave Brailsford, who has masterminded the triumphs of the team formerly known as Sky, told AFP this week he remained confident his plan for an eighth victory on the iconic Champs-Elysees next Sunday is on track.
Brailsford's approach saw Bernal seize victory on stage 19 last year.
"So far so good," Brailsford said before Bernal faltered on Thursday, slipping further off the pace.
"It's kind of what we expected really, it's going to be a race of attrition."
Ineos are without the authority of four-time champion Chris Froome or the charismatic 2018 champion Geraint Thomas.
Richard Carapaz, the man catapulted into the line-up to shepherd Bernal up the hills, fell heavily on the first stage, while Bernal has been nursing a bad back.
"Its very peculiar to see Ineos in this situation. It's the first time in eight years we have seen them like that," Michael Rasmussen, the Tour's King of the Mountains in 2005 and 2006, told AFP in Lyon on Saturday.
"Bernal is highly mature and it's difficult not to like him. But he's got his work cut out," said Rasmussen, now a cycling pundit for Danish media.
"For me it's Jumbo's to lose."
Roglic took the yellow jersey in the Pyrenees and was also stronger than Bernal on Puy Mary in the Massif Central on Friday.
There are four mountain stages left, two with summit finishes.
While Sunday's ride up Grand Colombier and Wednesday's slog up Meribel look similar, the second climb is slightly longer, a little steeper and finishes at a much higher altitude, which could help Colombian Bernal.
"The Alpine stage on Wednesday will suit him, but what can stop Roglic?" asked Rasmussen.
- 'He wants to win the Tour' -
In their winning run, Brailsford's team have liked to display their domination by riding en masse at the front of the peloton, dictating the pace.
This year, in the absence of Froome and Thomas, Jumbo have taken over the peloton and often the colours at the front have been their wasp-like yellow and black shirts.
On the rainy, dangerous, first stage in Nice, it was a Jumbo rider, Tony Martin, who sat up at the front and spread his arms to signal that the riders wanted to slow down.
On a powerful team, Roglic is also supported by former Giro d'Italia winner and world champion Tom Dumoulin and emerging Belgian ace Wout Van Aert, winner of two stages so far on this Tour.
Gabriel Rasch, who has replaced the late Nicolas Portal as Ineos sports director, said he hoped Bernal could relax and enjoy the rest of the race.
"For us we need really hard stages for Egan to make a difference. Our plan has been to stay in the game until then and we have managed that," he said on Friday.
"He wants to win the Tour, and he's getting better by the day."
Bernal is 59 seconds behind Roglic; after 14 stages last year he was three minutes off the lead. Roglic could crack or make a mistake, Jumbo might have worn themselves down showing that they could emulate Ineos and run the peloton and Brailsford's calculations might be spot on again.
But the high-profile battle between the old kings of the Tour de France and the pretenders could leave an opening for the leader of another team with seven riders within two minutes of Roglic.
The Slovenian's 21-year-old compatriot Tadej Pogacar of UAE sits second on his first Tour. Two Colombians, Rigoberto Uran of EF Pro Cycling and Nairo Quintana of Arkea-Samsic round out the top five.
© 2020 AFP