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Analysis: Why Egan Bernal chose Lombardia over Yorkshire worlds

Bernal adroitly steered clear of a worlds course that doesn't suit him and now he's taking aim at Lombardia to close out his spectacular season

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There’s been a bit of a controversy bubbling up in Colombia in the wake of the decision by Egan Bernal to skip this week’s road cycling world championships.

Carlos Betancur, the first reserve, was a last-minute replacement for Bernal after he took a pass on Yorkshire with an eye toward more realistic goals down the road.

Some Colombian fans took to social media to express their dismay over why or how the recently minted Tour de France champion would not want to carry national colors in the prestigious world road race.

“We’ll miss him, and even though he’s still young, he already has a lot of experience and he is a good leader,” Colombia’s national coach Carlos Mario Jaramillo told Colombian daily El Tiempo. “We spoke to him and right now he’s not in ideal condition to represent the country.”

On the surface, it’s obvious that the demanding but undulating Yorkshire course — at 285km with about 3,000 vertical meters of climbing — is the wrong fit for Bernal’s characteristics. Last year’s more mountainous route in Innsbruck more naturally tilted toward Bernal’s attacking style. On a course like Yorkshire, the rainbow colors will likely go to brawnier classics-style riders such as Peter Sagan, Philippe Gilbert or Mathieu van der Poel. In fact, Colombia’s world’s squad packed with climbers and otherwise tired riders at the end of a long season likely won’t have much of an impact at all on the race.

That didn’t stop a bit of uproar in Colombia, and Bernal was forced to post a message on Twitter to clarify why he was bypassing Yorkshire. The 22-year-old Ineos captain admitted he wasn’t in top shape and decided to forego a world’s trip, forfeiting his spot to Betancur.

That doesn’t mean he’s put a stop to his racing season. Far from it. Instead, Bernal and Ineos have made an end-of-season bet on the Giro di Lombardia on October 12. Last year, Bernal was 12th in the Italian classic, and Ineos brass believe the mountainous one-day race, won in emotional fashion by Thibaut Pinot in 2018, is the ideal scenario for Bernal to try to win stake his claim on his first monument.

“Lombardia is a better course for Egan than the worlds this year,” Ineos sport director Nicolas Portal said last week at the Vuelta a España. “It is important to race going into the winter. We hope Egan can be able to have a good race in Italy.”

The recently crowned Tour champion left behind the world’s brouhaha and returned to racing last week in Italy, promptly finishing second in the Giro della Toscana on Wednesday. Bernal came in behind Giovanni Visconti (Neri Sottoli-Selle Italia) in a winning trio, a result that raised even more criticism back home among those wondering why Bernal isn’t heading to Yorkshire.

“I didn’t think if I would go as strongly as I did because it’s the first time I’ve raced since [Clásica] San Sebastián [August 30],” Bernal said after the race. “I kept training, nothing specific, but there were a lot of dinners and celebrations after the Tour. In the end things turned out pretty good, and I ended up second, and I felt OK during the race.”

Though fans will be missing him in Yorkshire, his presence in Italy is a boon for the sometimes-overlooked fall Italian classics.

Bernal did not finish the Coppa Sabatini the next day nor was he in the hunt for victory in Saturday’s Memorial Marco Pantani, but he will have a busy Italian calendar over the next few weeks leading up to Lombardia. He is expected to race a series of one-day fall classics, including the Giro dell’Emilia (October 5), GP Bruno Beghelli (October 6), Tre Valli Varesine (October 8) and finally Lombardia.

More than anything, Bernal’s detour around Yorkshire and into Lombardia reveals a few things. First, the decision to skip an unfriendly worlds course for a more favorable Lombardia route is simply good racing sense. Bernal knows he has little chances of winning in Yorkshire, and a lot higher odds of success in Italy. Though it might have ruffled some feathers back home, his decision to target Lombardia over the worlds this year is the right call.

Second, it reconfirms how professional obligations — first to team ahead of nation — mandate a cyclist’s agenda. Though the worlds are in new team sponsor Ineos’s backyard, it will be riders like Geraint Thomas, Adam Yates and Tao Geoghegan Hart who will be the center of media attention, not Bernal. Team Ineos doesn’t want to risk its future franchise star in a race that doesn’t suit him and in an event that could only cause him harm. One bad crash in October could easily spoil things in July. Team Ineos wants to win WorldTour races, so Bernal is heading to Italy instead.

And finally, but more importantly, Bernal’s late-season Italian focus reveals a growing inner strength in the young Colombian. His rise through the ranks to become the modern era’s youngest Tour winner and Colombia’s first has been nothing short of meteoric. It’s clear, however, that Bernal is not letting those lofty heights go to his head. He could have buckled to pressure and raced a world’s course that does not suit him and, in the worst-case scenario, one that could be detrimental to the remainder of his 2019 racing season and next year’s as well.

Coupled with the fact that Bernal kept a relatively low profile back home after winning the Tour — there were no presidential visits in Bogotá nor month-long fiestas — says much about his character. He returned discretely to racing in Italy this week as a young man taking control of his destiny. Bernal doesn’t want to be a pawn to anyone or anything. Saying no to a worlds that didn’t suit him or one that he was ready to win might not seem like much at the surface, but it reveals that he won’t allow larger forces to push him around.

And his commitment to race this fall is the biggest takeaway. Most first-time Tour de France winners go on a months-long binge of chat shows, ticker-tape parades, celebration dinners, sponsorship deals and vacations. Not Bernal. After a short break from winning the Tour, Bernal was back to training.

By putting one of cycling’s fabled monuments at the center of his ambitions, Bernal is letting it be known there is a new sheriff in town.

Despite his short but already prodigious road-racing career, Bernal has never competed in a road race world championships. Fans hoping to see him in the worlds will have to wait at least another year. Or at least until a route that favors his otherworldly abilities on soaring clims. He might have skipped the worlds, but he hasn’t skipped out on racing. To Lombardia it is.