Castres (France) (AFP) - Team Ineos boss Dave Brailsford said Tuesday his riders were perfectly poised for another Tour de France win at the halfway stage after 10 rollercoaster stages so far.
Reigning champion Geraint Thomas, backed up by team co-captain Egan Bernal, said that victory was within his grasp and all was well in the Ineos camp.
That is in stark contrast to last year when the outfit, riding as Team Sky, were booed and jeered on the road by a hostile public upset that team leader Chris Froome had been cleared to ride despite doping allegations.
"Without a shadow of a doubt this is the most positive start we have ever had, a dramatic change from last year," said a relaxed Brailsford, speaking on a rest day before racing resumes on Wednesday.
At the same stage last year, Brailsford was engaged in a war of words with organisers about Team Sky's treatment.
"We can all speculate as to why that is, but to be supported like this and have a positive experience adds to the joy of it," said the man who has masterminded six titles from the past seven Tours de France.
"Ineos is a more open organisation and we are enjoying ourselves," he said, despite the absence of Froome, forced out of the Tour by injury following a horrific crash in June.
- Amazing route -
Defending champion Thomas is currently second to Julian Alaphilippe, while 22-year-old Colombian Bernal is just four seconds behind the Welshman after a string of attacks from the Frenchman have lit up the opening section of the Tour.
"It's been excellent," said Thomas. "Things are really starting to heat up.
"The parcours has had a lot to do with it with tricky hills placed near the end of stages and stuff."
Alaphilippe has launched three blistering attacks in such stages, in the Champagne region where he first took yellow, in a joint attack with Thibaut Pinot when he took it back from Giuloio Ciccone, and on the narrow crosswind swept road to Albi on Monday.
"Alaphilippe being so aggressive has made a difference. It's been a great start, now for the second half of the race."
- Alaphilippe not a contender -
With Froome absent, Thomas said he was enjoying being the 'captain' and defending champion and felt no real threat from Alaphilippe for the overall title.
"We have one simple goal, to win the Tour, other teams are here to win stages and stuff like that," said Thomas.
"It's been a great 10 days, and would have been even better if we were just a couple of seconds behind Alaphilippe instead of over a minute.
"But Alaphilippe is not necessarily a (title) contender
"By the second rest day we'll know a lot more, and if he has increased his advantage we'll be a lot more concerned," said Thomas.
"He's never raced for the overall title before and, I can't say we were happy for him to get ahead by a few seconds, but we are taking more notice now."
- Confident Bernal -
The slightly built Bernal has proven himself on the plains, the time-trials, in crosswinds and in the hills, but doubts remain over his maturity.
"The big difference is I'm more confident and more experienced, this year.
"Now I know everyone, it was a bit heavy last year," he said.
"Having the white jersey is really special," he said of the under-25's tunic he is wearing after 10 stages.
"It's something special, I'm really enjoying it, because this is the Tour and being here is amazing," said Bernal.
"But our objective is more important. We want the yellow jersey, we want to win the tour."
On top of the two road captains Ineos have the tough, straight-talking Welshman Luke Rowe, the influential rider who takes care of race incidents and who should be where during the stages.
"If the shit hits the fan, it's down to me," said Rowe, who Brailsford says has natural authority.
"I believe he (Thomas) can win the Tour de France and he has the belief that he can follow me and I'll put him in the right position."