Tour de France 2019: Thomas facing tough task to top Bernal

Chris Froome may not be competing in this year's Tour de France, but it is notable that Team INEOS have still opted to begin the race with two leaders rather than one.

In Froome's injury-enforced absence, many people may have expected Geraint Thomas to be named as INEOS' clear number-one rider. After all, the Welshman is the defending champion after producing a superb performance to beat team-mate Froome in 2018.

However, Thomas will share top billing with Egan Bernal, a highly rated Colombian more than 10 years his junior and competing in the Tour for only the second time.

If that seems a little strange, it is easily explained by the calibre of Bernal. Still only 22, he is widely regarded as the future of Team INEOS and may already be capable of stepping up to be the team's premier Grand Tour star.

While Thomas, 33, will take his place on the start line in Brussels on Saturday with questions surrounding his form and fitness after a crash forced him to abandon last month's Tour de Suisse, Bernal looks to be in superb condition.

He won the Tour de Suisse following Thomas' abandonment and also triumphed in the Paris-Nice this year to record the biggest success of his career to date.

Watchers of last year's Tour will also have been hugely impressed by Bernal's efforts as a domestique in his debut campaign. A 15th-placed finish for the youngster was admirable enough given his lack of experience, but it appeared he could easily have finished higher up the standings had he not been tasked with doing so much work in support of Froome and Thomas on the mountain stages.

When Bernal and Thomas were announced as joint leaders for this year's Tour, the latter said: "It’s no secret my build-up has been affected by the crash at Tour de Suisse, but I’ve had a good block of training since and I feel ready.

"Discussing with the team, we believe it makes sense to go into the race with joint leaders as it gives us more options. Egan and I will work hard for each other and the team over the three weeks of the race."

Thomas subsequently made it clear he views himself as 'Plan A' for INEOS, but he also acknowledged he began last year's race in a secondary role to fellow leader Froome and nevertheless prevailed.

“Last year, Froome was the leader but I was still protected and rode off the team as I would anyway," Thomas was quoted as saying by the Telegraph this week.

"I'm not going to ride any different. I don't think it [being the leader] makes too much difference."

Given Team INEOS' dominance of recent Tours, in their previous guise as Team Sky, it seems highly likely that their leading rider will be wearing yellow in Paris on July 28.

Former Sky rider Richie Porte believes Thomas is "the clear favourite" for glory, but the bookmakers appear to feel Bernal has just as much of a chance judging by pre-race odds.

The younger man could well be about to show he is INEOS' best bet for the present day as well as their future.

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