Viewed as one of the top favourites after winning the Giro d’Italia this May and the Tour de France in 2019, the Colombian had said pre-race that victory in the Vuelta a España and completing his Grand Tour ‘set’ was currently his biggest career goal.
Perhaps with that in mind, the British squad came to the race with a line-up packed with talent, including top climber Adam Yates, new Olympic champions Richard Carapaz and Tom Pidcock and the gifted all-rounder Pavel Sivakov.
But in contrast to the Giro’s first rest day, where Bernal was leading the overall by 14 seconds and already had taken a stage win, in the Vuelta, Bernal is lying fifth. He has yet to come within a sniff of victory on any given day, either.
“Losing around two minutes at this point in the race, it’s difficult to think of winning,” Bernal said on Monday. “Anything can happen, but if my best is finally fifth or third, then I’ve given the best I can and that’s it.”
Guarded about his chances of victory, Bernal being equally non-committal about his chances of putting Primož Roglič into difficulties: “Before you think about attacking him, you have to have good enough legs. And I haven’t been at the level you need to attack,” he said categorically.
“He’s an Olympic champion, he’s won two Vueltas. We’ll have to wait and see if he has a weak moment.”
If Bernal’s condition is not close what he had in the Giro, Ineos Grenadiers’ strategy on the Velefique during stage 9 had some outside observers baffled. After putting down a searing pace on the second last major climb, the Alto Collado Venta Luisa, Adam Yates’ early attacks on the Velefique were in stark comparison to Bernal’s inability to follow any accelerations. In the midst of all the flurry of moves and counter-charges, it almost went unnoticed that Carapaz had cracked completely and lost eight minutes.
“It was a tough stage, the one with the highest altitude of the whole race, so we pushed the pace hard all day and tried to get rid of the Jumbo riders,” Yates, sixth overall, explained on Monday.
“But they stepped up as a team yesterday [Sunday] so that didn’t work out as planned. We did the best we could and we’ve got to keep plugging away.”
Asked directly if he thought Yates was racing better than he was, Bernal answered, “It’s important to have two cards ahead. On a climb like yesterday [Sunday] it’s difficult to tell Yates he should stop to wait for me.”
Bernal said that he and Yates have a good relationship and that they “did the climb well.”
“We talked before and decided each rider should do his own race and if needed to help each other than we would.”
However, on the Velefique climb itself that strategy changed again, Bernal said, to one “where each rider would go at his own pace.”
As Bernal said on Sunday, he was confident of his own chances of making it to the finish alone without cracking, and that proved to be the case.
“It’s difficult, maybe if I could handle the accelerations better I can follow wheels more,” Bernal said.
“But my preparation here was different, the Giro was my big objective of the year and though I also tried to prepare well for the Vuelta, I didn’t get here at my best.
“So we’re on stage 9, lots of things can happen. This could be [a way of gaining] experience for other races. There are many other Vueltas, and this is only my first.”
For all his somewhat downbeat attitude to the Vuelta GC, Bernal insisted that he felt confident in general. “I know I’m not too bad. I can go at my own pace, and I know I will get there,” he said.
Yates pointed to the fact, too, that although they would need to gain “lots” of time to be able to stay ahead of Roglič in the final TT, he said, “It’s not only us. Hopefully Movistar can try something. Two weeks is a long time, and there are a lot of stressful stages to come.”
On a personal level, he said he had suffered in the heat on Thursday’s short, punchy summit finish at Cullera, he had been “trying to keep consistency in what’s been a hard nine stages. Hopefully we’ll be able to try and do something in the next two weeks.”