Commentary: Egan Bernal’s improbable pathway to the 2019 Tour de France win
There was a moment in Sunday’s pre-stage parade when four of Colombia’s top stars rode shoulder to shoulder early through the final stage of the Tour de France. Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán and Sergio Henao smiled as Egan Bernal was just moments away from making history.
After crossing the finish line on the Champs-Élysées, Bernal completed a quest that began decades ago for the cycling-crazed country. From the trailblazing pioneers of the original “escarabajos” in the 1980s to the generations that came behind them, no one could reach cycling’s most prestigious victory. After a string of close calls, including two second-places from Quintana in 2013 and 2015, and another runner-up spot with Urán in 2017, Bernal became the Neil Armstrong of Colombian cycling.
The first Latin American to win the Tour de France couldn’t find words to express his joy and amazement at the finish line in Paris on Sunday.
“I think it’s going to take me a few days to realize what I have done,” a tearful Bernal said. “This is the first Tour de France for Colombia. It’s not just mine, but for everyone. Our country deserves it.”
Bernal’s road to Paris was as accelerated and unexpected as it seemed as inevitable. Colombia had long been knocking on the door of the yellow jersey, but most people had not even heard of Bernal two years ago.
Though hyped as a future Tour de France winner following his spectacular WorldTour debut in 2018, no one imagined it to happen as soon as it did.
Seizing the opportunities
A series of twists of fate coupled with extraordinary skill and determination to press the advantage when a door opened led Bernal to take the historic step to the winner’s podium on Sunday.
“I want to thank the entire team, and Geraint [Thomas] for his sportsmanship, and to the entire team that always supported me,” Bernal said. “I am the happiest man in the world. Long live France, and long live Colombia!”
Bernal’s unlikely road to the yellow jersey began more than a decade ago. Growing up in a modest family and the son an avid cyclist, Bernal quickly impressed among the mountain bike ranks. His was already tapped for greatness at a young age. At 14, he posted a message on Facebook in the summer of 2014 asking for donations to help him fund a costly trip to Norway to race in the mountain bike world championships. The skinny kid from Zipaquirá would finish second in the junior category, a result that started to open eyes to his potential on the bike. Early testing of his VO2-max, among some of the highest levels ever confirmed, confirmed he was born to race a bike.
As he’s shown throughout his career, from that trip to Norway as a teen-ager to the chance to join the WorldTour’s best team, Bernal is a rider who embraces challenge, not skirt away.
Another key crossroads came in Bernal’s move to Europe. Every Colombian rider knows to have a chance to win the Tour de France, you have to make it out of Colombia.
Bernal transitioned seamlessly to road racing, and solid results led him into the arms of Gianni Savio, the legendary Italian sports director who has long mined the Latin American talent pool looking for diamonds in the rough. Savio has brought plenty of riders across to Europe, but none as spectacular as Bernal.
“We knew Egan could do well on the road and we brought him to Italy,” Savio told VeloNews in an earlier interview. “What he is doing is not a surprise to me. He had the talent and the right attitude from the very beginning.”
Bernal raced two seasons with Androni Giacattoli-Sidermec, quickly winning races at both the U23 ranks as well as on the European circuit. His dramatic 2017 victory at the Tour de l’Avenir let the cat out of the bag.
There was a bidding way for Bernal’s services, which was suddenly being hailed as the most promising GC talent in a generation. Not only could he climb, Bernal also packed TT chops, and he had right disposition and maturity to work hard and get along with teammates and staffers.
A perfect situation at Team Sky
The next fork in Bernal’s road to the yellow jersey came when Team Sky — now Ineos — signed him to an unprecedented five-year contract. When most deals are two, maybe three years max, the five-year agreement revealed just how much Dave Brailsford and the Sky brain trust believed in Bernal’s potential.
On any other team, Bernal might have been sent on a more traditional path of racing the Vuelta a España and Giro d’Italia before tackling the Tour. Under Brailsford, the team quickly realized there was no reason to hold him back.
Sky offered Bernal opportunities and support he would not have seen on other teams, and Bernal embraced them with gusto.
At the beginning of 2018, however, everyone was still talking a two-to-five-year window for Bernal’s yellow jersey road map. Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas were stacked up ahead of him in team hierarchy, and Bernal had never even raced in a grand tour in his career.
Things accelerated quickly and Bernal yet again stepped up. After he impressed in the spring of 2018, capped by victory in the Amgen Tour of California, Brailsford made the surprising call to bring Bernal to the Tour.
As a grand tour debutant, Bernal raced without pressure. Thomas would eventually win, with Froome riding on fumes after winning three consecutive grand tours in a row. Bernal came through in the final week, riding deep into the mountain stages alongside the strongest in the peloton. The 2018 Tour confirmed Bernal’s grand tour credentials.
Despite all the promising hints, no one at the beginning of this season truly expected Bernal to be winning the Tour in July.
With new sponsor Ineos coming on, the team’s future was secure. It became clear, when mapping out the season, that the Tour would be a chance for Froome to win a record-tying fifth yellow jersey. Thomas would race as co-captain and defending champion, and Bernal would get his chance to lead at the Giro.
Once again, things changed, and Bernal quickly adapted. A crash just days before the start of the Giro meant he was out of the “corsa rosa.” His first chance to lead in the GC was gone, but Bernal was first to ask to return to the Tour. Even if he was going to be third on the GC pecking order, he wanted to be there.
Froome’s crash opens the door
The idea of Bernal riding as super-domestique ended in a flash when Froome crashed heavily into a wall while on time trial reconnaissance midway through the Critérium du Dauphiné. Froome was out, and Bernal was nudged up on Ineos train. Instead of working, Bernal would be leading.
Flash-forward to the Tour and another twist of fate all but delivered him the yellow jersey. On Friday, a freak summer deluge sent a sea of hail, rain and snow onto the heights of the French Alps. Roads were impassable by mud and huge puddles of hail and water.
Not knowing the weather would change so dramatically, Ineos’s tactics were to send Bernal up the road to put pressure on overnight yellow jersey leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), allowing Thomas to mark the wheels coming over the Col de l’Iseran. When weather forced race organizers’ hands, they took the only decision that seemed fair, and marked the times at the top of the Iseran.
No one was racing knowing that the stage could be altered. Thomas was biding his time, making sure Alaphilippe was gapped before attempting to bridge across. Thomas was first in line to take yellow at Ineos when Alaphilippe finally cracked. No one will know what might have happened if the stage had played out. Bernal was in yellow. Not accidentally, but not quite exactly to plan, either.
Poor weather and the threat of avalanches forced more changes to Saturday’s stage. In another twist of fate that tilted in Bernal’s favor, the stage was reduced to a final charge up the Val Thorens summit. Thomas had no choice but to ride to protect Bernal and defend his second place.
Could Thomas have won this Tour? We’ll never know. What we do know is that Bernal was attacking when the others could not or did not. That long road of opportunities that began as a teen-aged mountain biker culminated on the Iseran. Bernal never hesitated.
Many believed Bernal would one day be a winner of the Tour, but his historic victory Sunday came sooner and more emphatically than anyone could have ever imagined.
“I want to get home and assimilate that I have won the Tour,” Bernal said Sunday. “Right now it still doesn’t seem real.”
Bernal’s world continues to shift and change beneath his feet at dizzying speed. So far, he’s been able to deal with those dramatic changes with striking and highly effective performances on the bike. Few riders have exploited openings and opportunities in their careers as successfully as Bernal.
With his historic yellow jersey, everything is about to change for Bernal yet again. Some have warned that young riders who touch early Tour success can flame out, such as the likes of Jan Ullrich, who won at 23. Bernal seems mature beyond his years, but he’s also largely been living out of the glare of media spotlight.
On Ineos, the focus was on Froome and Thomas. And in Colombia, Quintana and Urán are the superstars of the day.
Next year he’ll start the Tour on equal leadership duties with Froome and Thomas. He’ll be racing with a target on his back. He’s suddenly a superstar and Latin America’s first yellow jersey.
Bernal seems built for speed. So far, he’s turned the opportunities of change into his advantage at every turn of his career. If he keeps doing that, and stays healthy, Bernal could well be set to make history in more ways than one.
How many more yellow jerseys can he win? Backed by Ineos, this could well be the dawning of the Bernal era.