Dave Brailsford’s Ineos Grenadiers team are in danger of falling away at this year’s Tour de France. The defending champion, Egan Bernal, was again left in the slipstream of the irrepressible Primoz Roglic, who took an imperious stage victory in the first ski station finish to this year’s race at Orcières-Merlette in the Hautes-Alpes.
Roglic’s win put paid to any speculation he might still be suffering from the after-effects of his crash in the Critérium du Dauphiné last month. The former ski jumper is flying and the question now is whether Bernal will be able to keep up. On the evidence of Tuesday’s showing and the Colombian’s performance in the warm-up races, it may be a struggle.
As suspected before this year’s race, it is Roglic and his expertly drilled Jumbo-Visma team, not Brailsford’s Grenadiers, that is proving to be the strongest. The authority and certainty that once dominated in so many mountain stages and fuelled Tour wins from Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, has gone.
Bernal, still battling to shake off the back injury that forced him to quit the Dauphiné in August, acknowledged he had under-performed. “It’s not good when another general classification rider gets some seconds,” the Colombian said. “But I think we need to be patient.
“Our best scenario is to arrive in the third week without losing too much time and then trying to recover time on the long climbs. We want to arrive as fresh as we can in the final week.”
By then, however, it may be too late. Four stages into the race, Roglic and his team are dominating. Unrelenting pace-setting from the Slovenian’s teammates Wout van Aert and Sepp Kuss set up a trademark acceleration in the final 250 metres that left his rivals breathless.
“It was quite a fast day, but the guys again did a really good job,” said Roglic, winner of last year’s Vuelta a España. “I was always in a good position and so could do a nice sprint, so I’m very happy.”
But Roglic did not do enough to lift the yellow jersey from the shoulders of Julian Alaphilippe, who retains his overall lead as the convoy leaves the Alps and turns west across the Drôme region towards the Rhône valley.
Alaphilippe, who showed his limpet-like qualities in last year’s race, may yet hang on to the maillot jaune until the Pyrenees. “It’s news that I have to accept,” Roglic said of his failure to clinch yellow. “We stayed safe and at the end I won, so that’s even better. “
The 160.5km fourth stage, including five categorised climbs, built steadily to its frantic climax, after a six-man breakaway moved ahead within the opening kilometres. The last man standing, Krists Neilands, of the Israel Start-Up Nation team, was finally reeled in 7km from the finish.
The ladder of hairpins to Orcières-Merlette failed to provide a spectacular collapse among any of this year’s favourites but the 7.1km climb did, however, begin the weeding out process that characterises Grand Tours. On the approach to the finishing ascent both Roglic’s team and that of Alaphilippe, Deceuninck-Quick Step, worked hard to keep the pace high with Bernal’s Ineos Grenadiers, hampered by the injuries to Pavel Sivakov and a struggling Richard Carapaz, once again a discreet presence.
The telling attacks came in the last kilometre, with the furious tempo, set by the Coloradan climber Kuss in particular, putting Bernal and his team under intense pressure. The defending champion survived to finish with the front group, but he now surely knows where the main threat to a second Tour victory will come from.
Adam Yates, who will join Ineos Grenadiers in 2021, remains second overall, four seconds behind. “It would have been nice to attack and try and gain some seconds,” he said, “but the pace was pretty fast at the end so there wasn’t much I could do. If I attacked, I would have gained 10 metres, so I’ll have to try another day.”
But it is Roglic, written off by some after last month’s crash, who is now the man to beat. “We can see that I can race and every day I feel a little better,” he said. “Definitely I’m ready.”