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Vuelta a Espana

Egan Bernal on looming showdown with Tadej Pogačar: ‘It will be something special’

Colombian star leaves door open on Pogačar clash even as he continues to fight in the Vuelta a España that he admits he likely won't win.

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Egan Bernal and Tadej Pogačar are like two heavyweight boxers waiting for the big matchup.

So far, they’ve been dancing around each other and have only raced against one another on five occasions — two one-day races and three stage races. The last was the 2021 Tirreno-Adriatico, which Pogačar won and Bernal finished in fourth.

When asked Monday what he expects about a much-anticipated matchup with Pogačar, Bernal said he’s relishing the chance, but stopped short of confirming it will be in next year’s Tour de France.

“He’s one of the world’s best riders, very complete, very solid,” Bernal said of Pogačar. “I haven’t raced with him a lot, but you can see he’s very calm and seems like a nice guy. It will be interesting to race against him. It will be something special to see.”

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A showdown between Pogačar and Bernal would drive interest sky high for the 2022 Tour. There’s no guarantee when that’s going to happen next year, however.

The only time they raced in a grand tour together came in the 2020 Tour, when Bernal flamed out with back problems, and Pogačar bounded into yellow.

Despite being the two most prolific and young cyclists in the peloton right now, they haven’t raced against one another very often.

Part of that might be accidental, and part of it planned.

Also read: Ineos Grenadiers leaves Tour de France again without yellow

They squared off the first in 2019 at the Clásica San Sebastián, and neither finished. Bernal, hot off his historic Tour victory, was the peloton’s rising star. At that point, Pogačar was about to start his first grand tour in the Vuelta a España, where he would win three stages and finish third overall to announce his arrival.

In 2020, they squared off at a pre-Tour test at Critérium du Dauphiné, when Bernal abandoned to reveal his first hints of the back problems that continue to plague him. Pogačar rode under the radar, finishing fourth overall just weeks ahead of his Tour breakthrough.

They faced off again at this year’s Strade Bianche, where Bernal hit the podium with third, and Pogačar was seventh. At Tirreno a week later, Pogačar blazed to victory while Bernal finished fourth.

Also read: No Vuelta for Pogačar

Following his struggles in the 2020 Tour, Ineos Grenadiers brass cautiously steered Bernal clear of the Tour, and sent him to the Giro d’Italia, which he promptly won. Pogačar backed out of a possible Vuelta start this month following his Tour-Olympic double capped by a second yellow jersey and bronze in the elite men’s road race.

Will the showdown happen in 2022? Bernal said it’s too early to say.

“For me, it’s not only the Tour,” he said in a media call Monday. “There are three grand tours in a year, and you don’t have to do the Tour every year. This year, for example, I did the Giro-Vuelta, and next year will depend on what the courses look like to decide on the calendar.”

‘Anything can still happen’

Bernal is cautiously pedaling into the final week of the Vuelta a España. With teammate Adam Yates, the pair is sitting seventh and eighth, respectively, about three minutes behind pre-race favorite Primož Roglič (Jumbo-Visma).

Yates said it’s not up to Ineos Grenadiers, down two riders following the abandons of Richard Carapaz and Jhonatan Narváez, to do the attacking.

“It all depends on what happens,” Yates said. “We are a bit further back than the other teams, so why is it us to force the race? It seems when we put our necks on the line, it’s the others that take advantage.

“It all depends on the course, the conditions, and the riders around us,” Yates said. “Every time we felt good, we’ve tried to do something, but maybe it hasn’t worked out so far. Let’s see if the legs are good, let’s see how we come out of this rest day, and see what happens.”

Two brutal climbing stages Wednesday and Thursday should decide the final hierarchy of the 2021 Vuelta. With a 30km time trial waiting on the final stage Sunday, Bernal said all the rivals would need two minutes on the Olympic time trial champion to seriously have a hope of fending him off.

Despite not being able to mount a direct threat to Roglič so far, Bernal said he’s pleased that he’s made it as far as he has in the Vuelta considering he was diagnosed with COVID-19 following his Giro victory in May.

“Right now I am where I expected to be, with the COVID, without the best preparation. I knew the first stages and the first weeks were going to be complicated,” Bernal said. “With a lot of motivation, hard work, and just being practical, I am still there after some hard days.”

Bernal said he and Yates are prepared to ride together and sacrifice one another’s chances for the good of the team.

“Yates and I are speaking to each other every day, and we are both open to losing our GC positions to help the other,” Bernal said. “If I feel good or if he feels, it doesn’t matter, it depends on who’s feeling good. If it happens that one has to sacrifice for the other, we’ll do it.

“Anything can happen,” he continued. “There are some complicated stages still to come. Yates was able to get away from the others on Sunday, so the strength of everyone is at the limits. We need to stay calm, enjoy the bike, and be ready to move if there’s a chance. If we can attack, we’ll attack, if not, we’ll fight to stay at the front.”

‘Enjoying the Vuelta while suffering’

Bernal hasn’t raced much in Spain during his career. With his initial European roots in Italy, his experience in Spain has been relatively limited.

His Vuelta debut isn’t producing the Roglič showdown as some anticipated, but Bernal said he is enjoying the race in unexpected ways.

“It’s difficult to say that I am enjoying but I  believe I am,” Bernal said. “There are stages I’ve gone [to] the maximum, and I’ve been able to stay with everyone at a very high level even when I am not at my best. That’s when I love to ride my bike, to suffer, to be at the front, to demonstrate that I can arrive [at] the finish line, even if I don’t have the best legs right now.”

Bernal is showing new maturity as he moves into the next phase of his career. No longer cycling’s new “boy wonder,” he’s already won two grand tours by the ripe age of 24.

He’s using this Vuelta just as much as an exercise on how to suffer when the chips are down as to win.

“It’s hard in the moment, but it’s making me laugh a bit that how much I suffered and everything I did to fight to be at the front so far in this Vuelta,” he said. “I am really tired right now, and I want to do the best I can, not just for me, but for the team and how much they’ve been for working us. I want to demonstrate that I am a rider who, even if I am not at 100 percent, I am going to give everything.”

Bernal refuses to quit and knows there are some important lessons in riding out this Vuelta even if he admits the victory seems far away, going into the final week.

“In a certain way, I am enjoying this Vuelta more than the the Tour I won or the Giro I won,” he said. “When you have the legs, it’s easy to be up front. When you don’t have the best legs, you have to calculate more, be more frugal, use your head, and in this sense, I am enjoying it more and I am learning a lot.”