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Tour de France

The man who discovered Bernal: ‘Too early for Tour’

Gianni Savio has been happily watching the young Colombian Egan Bernal climb the ranks but says he isn't ready for Tour debut

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RIVA DEL GARDA, Italy (VN) — The man who brought Egan Bernal to Europe says it’s too soon to bring the Colombian sensation to the Tour de France.

Gianni Savio, the legendary Italian manager who introduced some of Latin America’s biggest stars to Europe, said Team Sky should hold off on taking the 21-year-old Bernal to the Tour.

“It’s too early to take him to the Tour,” Savio said. “Sky will bring a team to win the Tour with Chris Froome, and they need an experienced team and a team that is strong enough to work at the top level for three weeks.”

On Tuesday, Bernal’s agent told a Spanish newspaper that the recent Tour of California winner will make his grand tour debut with Team Sky at the Tour.

Team Sky officials would not comment on the reports, but the Tour squad will not be decided until after the Critérium du Dauphiné and Tour de Suisse in June. Bernal is expected to race the Dauphiné.

Sky’s Tour plans will be greatly impacted by Froome’s ongoing Salbutamol case. If Froome doesn’t race the Tour, the temptation might be there to take Bernal to France. Savio insists the Vuelta a España would be a better choice.

“I believe that Sky will take him to the Vuelta,” Savio said. “With me, Egan progressed slowly step by step for two years. The Tour is too much for a first grand tour rider.”

Mining Colombian gold

Gianni Savio (far left) stood on the Milano-Torino podium with his team, which included Egan Bernal (fourth from right). Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Much like a proud father, Savio has watched with delight as Bernal has quickly made an impact at the WorldTour level. Bernal raced the 2016-17 seasons with Savio at the Androni-Sidermec team before making a high-profile transfer to Team Sky this year.

“I am so happy for him!” Savio said with a big smile. “I’ve always said when I signed him when he was 19 years that he is a true talent and he is going to achieve great things. And he’s proving me right.”

The salt-and-pepper-haired and ever-dapper Savio is a lively presence on the vibrant Italian racing scene. And a survivor. His teams have endured over the decades as other larger, better-funded teams have come and gone.

Savio is back in the Giro this year with his Androni-Sidermec-Bottecchia team after missing the past two editions of the Corsa Rosa.

Savio, 70, has long had his finger on the pulse of the Colombian scene. He served as the Colombian national team coach when Santiago Botero won gold in the elite men’s time trial in 2002 to become Latin America’s only elite men’s world champion.

“This is my big passion,” Savio said, “to search out these pure talents, sometimes in lost villages in the mountains.”

As general manager of the long-running Androni franchise, Savio has cobbled together sponsors to build one of Italy’s longest-running team. Savio helped bring across such Latin American stars as Freddy González, Ivan Parra, Jackson Rodríguez and José Serpa to Europe. His most famous recruit was Venezuelan climber José Rujano, a relationship that ended in acrimony.

Savio counts on an informal network of contacts ranging from old friends, agents, sport directors, journalists, and talent scouts who help him mine promising talent in Colombia.

It’s a mutually beneficial agreement. South American agents and team managers know they can count on Savio as a doorway into Europe. And Savio has insider access to some of the best riders in the world.

Bernal, however, could well be Savio’s greatest “discovery” yet.

All roads lead to Bernal

Egan Bernal
Egan Bernal wore the best young rider’s jersey at the 2017 Tirreno-Adriatico. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Savio’s antenna was up when word started going around Colombia of a promising mountain biker who twice finished on the junior world championship podium. Bernal’s agent reached out to Savio, who quickly brought him to Italy.

“Egan started as a mountain biker, but I also believed that he could be great on the road,” Savio said. “We brought him to Italy and he won what’s called the ‘Mini Tour of Flanders’ in Tuscany. I signed him that very same night.”

Savio also organized Bernal’s now-famous VO2-max test that revealed numbers reported close to 90ml/kg, among some of the best numbers ever tested.

Bernal raced two seasons for Androni, capped by winning the Tour de l’Avenir last summer with the powerful Colombian team.

“Egan has extraordinary gifts,” Savio added. “We brought him along slowly so he could eventually arrive to a big team where he could really shine.”

Eternal attacker

Egan Bernal
Team Sky signed Bernal after a promising 2017 season. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Any conversation with Savio is a constant string of interruptions. Fans want an autograph. Old friends stop for a handshake and riders slap his back with a quick “ciao.”

During the Giro, Savio rides in the first team car to direct tactics. His cool Turin accent coos over the radio, urging on his riders to dig deep for the “coraggio” to attack.

Savio’s Giro team doesn’t have a GC rider, so its hopes for a stage win are built on the breakaways.

Going into Wednesday’s stage 17, Savio’s jersey has been present in every breakaway so far in the 2018 Giro. Savio proudly called it a Giro record.

“We have been in the breakaways with at least one rider. We have the breakaway record!” Savio proudly stated. “It’s a demonstration of the spirit of the team. That also reflects my philosophy of my attacking.”

And what about Savio’s latest discovery, 20-year-old Colombian climber Ivan Sosa?

“Everyone wanted me to bring him to the Giro — I said no!” Savio said firmly. “A young rider can do three, four or even five days at a high level, but a three-week grand tour can break a young rider. My philosophy is always to bring along young talents very slowly.”

Savio vows to keep attacking and to keep coming back to the Giro.

And he’s proudly watching Bernal’s progress.

“I am still in contact with Egan because we are still very close,” Savio says with his face beaming. “In interviews, he always thanks Gianni Savio to help him become a professional.

“Egan is not a surprise at all for me,” he continued. “And I believe in very little time we will see him on the podium of a grand tour.”

Bernal’s success would be Savio’s crowning achievement.