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Reigning champion Egan Bernal still in "a bit of pain" ahead of Tour de France

Egan Bernal goes into the race as the sole leader of the Ineos Grenadiers.

Defending champion Egan Bernal admitted his back injury is still bothering him on the eve of the Tour de France.

Bernal, 23, goes into the race as the sole leader of the Ineos Grenadiers after the decision to leave Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas at home.

But though he looked strong in winning La Route d'Occitanie and coming second in the Tour de l'Ain earlier this month, he withdrew early from the Criterium du Dauphine with back problems which continue to linger.

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Suffering Mode 😎

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"I feel a little bit of pain in the back to be honest," Bernal said. "I'm much better than I was in the Dauphine, in the Dauphine it was really bad, the pain.

"But these days I'm feeling much better and I hope during the whole Tour to be working hard and trying to recover, especially for the last week."

The Tour boasts a stacked line-up of contenders who will look to exploit any weakness from Bernal over the coming weeks.

The main challengers are expected to be the Jumbo-Visma squad, though their own preparations have been hampered.

Primoz Roglic, who beat Bernal in the Tour de l'Ain, suffered a nasty crash while leading the Dauphine to leave questions over his own condition, while Steven Kruijswijk will not start the race due to a shoulder problem.

2020 Tour de France Package
Primoz Roglic was seen as the race favourite before a crash at the Criterium du Dauphine (Bradley Collyer/PA)

Bernal still expects to see a strong challenge.

"I think they are really something," he said. "For sure they will be one of the favourites to win the race. Primoz, in the past races, he was the strongest guy and he was flying.

"I think they will be one of the favourites and we need to be really careful with him and also Tom Dumoulin, who was getting better in the last races.

"That's something good for the race to have another strong team, a really, really strong team to fight. And it can be good for us too, for Ineos, because for sure they will need to take some responsibility in the race."

Earlier this week, Bernal's boss Sir Dave Brailsford had tried to shift the pressure on to Dumoulin, Roglic and others, saying they had to deliver now as their age – 29 and 30 respectively – meant they were running out of time.

That was seen as mind games in some quarters as Ineos enter what could be a transitional period, moving away from Froome and Thomas to focus on the youth of Bernal as well as Richard Carapaz, 27, and Pavel Sivakov, 23.

But Brailsford insisted he had every confidence in his team in the here and now.

"Whilst it's been a fantastic journey and for the rest of the season we'll focus on Chris and Geraint, for now it's all focused on here and I'm very, very confident in the team we have here," he said.

"We've won this race more than any other team here, we've got riders in this race with more experience and who have won more Grand Tours than any other team in this race.

"Our collective knowledge of how to win the Tour de France is greater than anywhere else, so we're very, very confident about that."

2020 Tour de France Package
Sir Dave Brailsford said he had every confidence in a younger team at the Tour (Martin Rickett/PA)

The Tour will begin against a backdrop of rising coronavirus cases in France with Nice – site of the Grand Depart – put on red alert on Thursday.

Brailsford said sport was a "key part" of a relative return to normality, but accepted there could be no guarantees the event would make it to Paris on September 20.

"Everybody wants the event to happen," he said. "But equally, to take a mature and fair common-sense approach, if there becomes a point where it's too much of a risk to riders, to teams and to society in general, people need to take that on board as well."

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Team Ineos' Chris Froome before the race on February 23, 2020
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