Team Sky worked hard to position the Colombian, along with fourth-placed Tao Geoghegan Hart across the 176.5-kilometre run from Stockton.
A bunch finish ensured Bernal remains just 23 seconds off the yellow jersey, with the sprint stage also allowing the team to conserve some energy ahead of Friday’s mountain test. Geoghegan Hart had less luck on the run-in after getting caught up in a late pile-up. The young Brit stayed upright but was forced to come to a complete halt, and after chasing back he eventually crossed the line 23 seconds down. That saw him drop one place to fifth overall.
Five riders up the road proved comfortable to control for the peloton during the stage, with a number of interested teams willing to ride on the front.
With 15km to go Team Sky hit the front, with Ian Stannard and then Luke Rowe stringing out the bunch with a bit of wind in the vicinity. Lukasz Wisniowski was another rider involved in the late crash but was able to remount and cross the line.
At the finish in Elk Grove it was Fernando Gaviria (Quick-Step Floors) who prevailed in the sprint, holding off Caleb Ewan (Mitchelton-Scott) and world champion Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Bernal was back on the podium at the end of the stage as he held on to his mountain and young rider jerseys.