Defending Tour de France champion Egan Bernal said he “felt empty” as he lost more than seven minutes to leader Primoz Roglic on Sunday’s Grand Colombier climb.
The Ineos Grenadiers rider is all but out of contention for the win with a week of the race still to go.
Roglic leads Tadej Pogacar by 40 seconds, with Briton Adam Yates fifth.
“It’s difficult to say how I felt, the feeling was that I was empty,” the Colombian said after stage 15.
“I had no power. When the others did a big acceleration, I couldn’t follow,” added Bernal, who is 13th in the general classification but eight minutes and 25 seconds behind – a virtually impossible deficit to reverse.
It was a shock for many to see the manner of the 23-year-old’s failure to keep pace with yellow jersey wearer Roglic of Jumbo-Visma on Sunday’s 174.5km stage, which included two category one ascents and finished on the hardest hors category classification.
The high mountains in the French Alps is Bernal country – a place where last year he came into his effortless own to ease away from Ineos team-mate Geraint Thomas and Roglic.
He added: “I was not going well from the first climb to be honest. I was trying to fight until the final and give my best, but my body couldn’t react as normal.
“There’s no excuses, I tried to fuel my body in the best way possible, but I didn’t have the legs. The other riders have been stronger than me and we have to accept that.”
Bernal loved by team-mates
Leading up to Sunday, Bernal appeared to be in good shape, momentarily blasting off the front of the peloton during stage 14 into Lyon, almost as a show of force to his rivals.
But a World Tour season delayed by the coronavirus pandemic has already seen some unpredictable peaks and troughs in the performances of some of the sport’s top riders – as proven by France’s great hope for yellow Thibaut Pinot, who ran out of steam much earlier than anticipated.
But there were few signs Bernal was struggling on the bike.
His team-mates love riding for a man with such a happy-go-lucky demeanour, as proven by his attempt to cut his own hair on the first rest day.
“He wakes up and he’s got this outrageous haircut,” said Luke Rowe, one of the team’s domestiques on this Tour. “Egan, what the?… he goes: ‘I was bored!’
“He has great enthusiasm. I like that and I like working with him. He’s appreciative of the team and a pleasure to ride for.”
Bernal even tweeted shortly after the huge loss, “Vive Le Tour!” Spirited, if nothing else.
Brave new world for Ineos
Not being in a position to win the Tour de France with a week still to go will be a very unusual feeling for a team which has won seven out of the past eight years.
Such an unprecedented degree of success came thanks to Bradley Wiggins in 2012, Chris Froome in 2013 and 2015-2017, Geraint Thomas in 2018 and then Bernal himself last year – the first after Ineos took over sponsorship from Sky.
Not since 2014 have they been in this position – when Froome fell and abandoned injured from that year’s Tour during a wet, miserable early stage on the cobbles of northern France between Ypres and Arenberg Porte du Hainaut.
No Sky riders won a single stage for the remainder of that race.
But they are now ready to fight for stages and have several riders with real pedigree set to break out of the train of domestiques we have become used to watching and make their own mark. In particular, Michal Kwiatkowski, who is a former world champion no less, and has won several one-day races.
There’s also Rowe himself and the relatively new talent of Russian all-rounder Pavel Sivakov, who could spring a surprise on a mountain stage. As could last year’s Giro d’Italia winner Richard Carapaz.