The debate and conjecture about the likely make-up of the Ineos team at the Tour de France will roll on after the "queen" stage of the Route d'Occitanie to the Col de Beyrède. While the stage provided some answers about the condition of key players on the British squad, it also made it apparent that no easy selection decisions can be made yet.
Defending Tour champion Egan Bernal was doubly happy at the stage finish having taken victory and seen his teammates scatter his rivals. He admitted he hadn't come to Occitanie with his sights set on winning on the Beyrède, but his performance made it very clear that his preparation for the defence of the Tour crown is absolutely on track.
"I'll keep on working towards that goal, improving bit by bit, keeping calm and not thinking too much about anything beyond that, just taking it day by day, race by race," said the Colombian. "We've still got quite a few race days before the Tour and the best thing to do is to keep my feet on the ground knowing that this is a very good race but the Tour is something completely different."
He dead-batted an attempt to portray himself as the Tour favourite, suggesting "there are a lot of riders who could be considered for this status." Of those he beat today, he picked out Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) for particular mention. "If you look at Pinot, there's no doubt that he's not at 100 per cent here. We'll see a different Pinot at the Tour. Winning here doesn't mean that you'll win the Tour de France. We've got to think about the stage tomorrow, and I don't want to think too much about whether I'm the Tour favourite or not."
Turning to teammate Chris Froome, Bernal said it was an honour to have the Briton working for him on the Beyrède stage. "Chris did a really great job today and rode very strongly. He's still recovering from the effects of his crash and his number one objective is the Tour, just as it's mine and Geraint Thomas's as well. We all know that."
As for Froome, his grin at the finish said everything about how his day had gone. This was the first time he'd featured significantly on a big mountain stage since April 2019's Tour of the Alps. He had said after day one at Occitanie that his form felt good, and here he provided much stronger evidence of that, turning the screw on the undulating middle section of the Beyrède, denying rival riders the chance of any recovery before the "wall" leading towards the summit.
Asked if he felt that he might get the chance to be one of Ineos's leaders at the Tour, Froome said, "I'm going to take it one week at a time at the moment, keep improving my level. Obviously things can change before we get to the Tour. It's still a month away and a lot can happen."
Fulsome in his praise of his teammates, Froome also reflected on the very special significance the stage had for him, reflecting on the memories it brought back of Ineos DS Nicolas Portal. "A stage like this was also really special to be able to remember Nico. I had so many memories come back to me on the roads today, these are the roads that I've spent hours and hours with Nico reconning for the Tour de France. It brought back a lot of memories, that's for sure. It made it really special that the guys were able to get first and second," he said.