By Martyn Herman
(Reuters) – Team Ineos’s strategy of having co-leaders in reigning champion Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal will face its first big test on Thursday when the Tour de France hits the mountains, according to 2012 champion Bradley Wiggins.
The sixth stage summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles is being earmarked as the day when the leading general classification contenders make a move and could offer the first clue as to who might emerge as Ineos’s best hope.
“I can’t wait to see it really,” Wiggins, talking in his role as an analyst for Eurosport, told reporters.
“I think if they (Thomas and Bernal) both get there on zero time to each other as it were, no time losses, no more crashes in the next few days, it’s going to be really interesting.”
Thomas won the Tour last year after out-shining team mate Chris Froome in the early stages and being promoted to team leader.
With four-times winner Froome ruled out after a horrific crash on a training run at the Criterium du Dauphine last month, Thomas might have been expected to be sole team leader but 22-year-old Colombian Bernal is in tremendous form.
He won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse and is being talked about as favorite in some quarters.
Wiggins said Thomas, who has not had the best of build-ups, will not be concerned.
“It is a tough one, but I think G is wise enough to know that he’s not had the greatest of runs this year,” said Wiggins, a former track and road team mate of Thomas.
“I think he’s benefited from that join leadership thing, although last year they did keep saying it was for Froome, to the camera anyway. I think behind-the-scenes there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that it was going to be G.
“(Ineos) have to be realistic, they have to ride to their strengths, and you’d say the man in form at the moment is Bernal. The man who should be commanding the respect is G as last year’s winner. I don’t think it’s a bad tactic to employ.”
Wiggins says Thomas will not expect any favors from Bernal in the Vosges mountains on Thursday when the peloton will climb three category one ascents, finishing at the ski resort of La Planche des Belles Filles.
“If they said ‘given the choice, do you want Bernal to sacrifice himself for you on the Planche des Belle Filles on Thursday?’ G would probably be the first to say ‘not so sure you should do that just in case’,” Wiggins said.
“Because that adds extra pressure to G. So, it’s not a bad thing to be going along for the next couple of weeks as a kind of joint leadership.”
Thomas and Bernal are both 30 seconds behind surprise early yellow jersey wearer Mike Teunissen of the Jumbo Visma team who won stage one in Brussels and the team time trial.
Despite a crash on Saturday, Wiggins is impressed with what he has seen from Welshman Thomas.
“He looked fantastic when I was in the bunch yesterday,” he said. “The one thing with G, as I’ve known for years with him especially on the track program, is nothing fazes him.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Ed Osmond)