When Egan Bernal burst onto the scene a few years ago, there was one thing — besides his explosive style — that stood out: his smile.
“When he arrived in Europe and our team, he had a big smile every time he raced,” Brailsford said. “That was the first thing you noticed was his smile. He was very aggressive and very charismatic. It’s very important that he finds that joy of racing again.”
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There’s been plenty to put a frown on Bernal’s face over the past several months. After making history as Colombia’s first Tour de France winner in 2019, his profile skyrocketed at home. Despite the impacts COVID-19 and the growing pressure, things were looking up for 2020. Bernal won in his return race in France, and was hanging with the best climbers across the Pyrénées in the Tour’s opening half.
There were chinks in the veneer at Le Puy Mary on stage 13, when he lost terrain to the leaders, and it was a full-on crisis when he collapsed against the weight of Jumbo-Visma on Grand Colombier. Officials later revealed long-running back problems finally came to the fore.
After a long break, the team is quietly hopeful Bernal can bounce back. Rather than return to the Tour and all the weight of responsibility that comes with that, Bernal will race the Giro d’Italia for the first time.
Targeting the Giro d’Italia for the first time
More important for Brailsford and Co. is to see their Colombian star having fun again on the bike.
“It was well-documented with his back injury. It wasn’t an easy season for him,” Brailsford told journalists last week in a video call. “He’s a very young guy, very talented, and he’s achieved a lot very early. From the team’s point of view, it’s all about getting that smile back on this face and enjoy being a bike racer again.”
Bernal returned to competition last week at the Étoile de Bessèges, and continues this week with the Tour de la Provence. The hilly terrain at Bessèges wasn’t the best barometer of his fitness. Saturday’s third stage finishing at Chalet Reynard on the flanks of Mont Ventoux will provide the first measuring stick of where Bernal stacks up.
Before winning the Tour in 2019, Bernal was allowed to race in the shadows of Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas. There was never really any real pressure to deliver. That changed after he stood atop the podium in Paris.
For Brailsford, the team wants to dial down the pressure a bit, and turn up the volume on what he called the joy of racing. It’s part of Brailsford’s new-look approach to 2021, when he promises Ineos Grenadiers will race with a more aggressive platform and less top-down control.
“If you do it well, the results will come,” Brailsford said. “But not just only focus on winning, and only on the outcome … focus on the whole of the process, and approaching it with a little bit less pressure this year. He’s a very ambitious guy. We have to support him to really enjoy his racing again, the rest will look after itself.”