Egan Bernal taking his place in Allerød on the start line of the opening stage of the Tour of Denmark on Tuesday was a momentous occasion.
The Colombian entered the race with little ambition other than finishing it, and after spending some time working on the front of the peloton, he sat up in the final kilometers to roll safely across the line some two minutes back on the leaders.
“It was a fast stage, but I felt good. I’m happy to get through my first race. No pain and a good feeling, that was the goal,” Bernal told local media at the finish line. “It was fine to sit in the peloton, the first 10 kilometers were a bit strange, but then it went fine. In the final, I didn’t want to take any risks, so I took it easy in the last kilometers.”
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In any other year it would have been an unremarkable day, but that he was there Tuesday at all is a minor miracle.
Just under eight months ago, Bernal was lying on the ground of a Colombian road near Gachancipá having collided with the back of a bus during a training ride with some of his teammates. Video from a security camera published later showed the 25-year-old hitting the right side of the bus that had stopped to allow passengers to get on and off.
It was later confirmed that Bernal had been riding his time trial bike that day and he was reportedly traveling about 60kph at the moment of impact. The crash came days after he and his teammates had endured a close call with an oncoming car that was overtaking and on the wrong side of the road.
Fortunately for Bernal, he was quickly attended to and taken to a local hospital for treatment, but that would be the first step in a lengthy recovery process.
A lot of broken bones
Information about the circumstances of the crash and Bernal’s condition were slow to come out of Colombia. Due to the time difference with Europe, it was several hours before Ineos Grenadiers was able to confirm the news of the incident, but it gave little more information than that.
It wasn’t until the Clinica Universidad de La Sabana, where Bernal was being treated, that we found out the true extent of the injuries and just how lucky the Colombian had been. As a result of the crash, Bernal had suffered several broken vertebrae, a broken patella, a broken femur, and fractured ribs, as well as a punctured lung and multiple other injuries.
He would spend several days in the intensive care unit as he underwent surgeries that would ultimately salvage his career. In total, Bernal would have five surgeries, including two on his spine.
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Those early days were crucial for Bernal as doctors aimed to ensure that he would still be able to walk. At the time, ensuring a return to racing was not at the forefront of the medical staff’s minds as they treated the Colombian.
“After having had a 95 percent chance of becoming a paraplegic and nearly losing my life doing what I love to do most, today I want to thank God, the [Clínica Universidad de La Sabana], all its specialists for doing the impossible, my family, [girlfriend], and all of you for your wishes,” Bernal wrote on social media four days after his crash. “I am still in [intensive care] waiting for more surgeries but trusting in God everything will turn out OK.”
That he was able to move all of his limbs in the days after the accident was a promising sign for those treating Bernal, but there would be a long way to go. Just over a week after the crash, he was moved out of the intensive care unit, and he was quickly discharged from the hospital soon after. Bernal described the feeling of leaving the hospital as being as though he was “born again.”
On February 10, just over two weeks after the crash, Bernal posted a video of himself walking outside the front of his family home. He was still wearing a brace to support the upper half of his body, but he was able to make a few slow and considered steps down a gently sloping ramp.
Determined to make his comeback as soon as possible, Bernal videoed himself riding for the first time just over two weeks after the crash. It was on a fully-seated bike machine, rather than a bike itself, but it was a start. Though he was still using a cane to help him walk, he was finally able to upgrade to a bike fitted to a home trainer by March 12.
Bernal rode on open roads for the first time in the last week of March and this quickly led to rumors about how soon he would be able to race again. One of the doctors that treated Bernal, Gustavo Urzia, told the Colombian press that he could be ok to race by the end of May.
However, being medically cleared to race and being in full race shape after enduring such a traumatic incident are two very different things. Ineos Grenadiers was not willing to throw him in at the earliest opportunity. It would still take time to build his form and his strength before a race start would be possible.
Bernal did head to Europe in early May to start working on that, and he attended an altitude camp in July with a handful of teammates. The three-week camp was the biggest test of Bernal’s fitness since his crash and the team was happy with what it saw.
“Obviously without Egan this year it’s made a big difference to us as a team,” Ineos Grenadiers deputy team principal Rod Ellingworth told VeloNews at the Tour de France. “That’s the biggest blow that we’ve taken all year but I think that Egan is capable and if I’m really honest I think that Egan has only scratched the surface of what he’s capable of. I think he can come back and he’s doing really well at the moment. Let’s hope he can do something really special.”
Despite his good rides at the training camp, a grand tour was not realistically on Bernal’s horizon for 2022. Instead, the team decided to phase him back into racing with an easier effort at the Tour of Denmark.
Following his experiences, there are few expectations placed upon Bernal at this time and he is likely going to be doing his best to stay out of risky situations for the foreseeable future, as he did on stage 1. Bernal has shown what he can do in training and only time will tell just what he will be able to do in racing.