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Egan Bernal ready to impress as Colombia’s newest diamond in rough

With tremendous physiological talent and experience in Europe, Egan Bernal looks like Colombia's hottest young climber.

Two years ago, Androni-Giocattoli manager Gianni Savio couldn’t hold back his enthusiasm. Always on the lookout for unsung Latin American talent, Savio gushed at his latest discovery, “I’ve found someone who could be even better than Nairo Quintana!”

At the time, many just rolled their eyes. The exuberant Savio is always his own best salesman, but it turns out the Italian just might be right. That rider is Egan Bernal.

The 21-year-old races this week on home roads during the inaugural Oro y Paz race in Colombia. Already a budding star in South America, the larger peloton is just now discovering his potential.

“I don’t feel the pressure right now to perform,” Bernal said at last month’s Tour Down Under. “Journalists are asking me more questions. I am focused on the racing right now and learning all I can.”

Bernal is already generating buzz with his potential, his attitude, and his VO2max (more on that later). After watching him blow away the field at last year’s Tour de l’Avenir, Team Sky came calling with a chance to join the WorldTour on a three-year contract.

After racing two seasons with Savio, Bernal’s emphatic victory in last year’s Tour de l’Avenir seemed to confirm the hype. Bernal is part of Sky’s glimmering “Class of 2018” that also includes new recruits Kristoffer Halvorsen, Chris Lawless, and Pavel Sivakov.

Last month, Bernal made an impressive WorldTour debut with Team Sky at the Santos Tour Down Under, winning the best young rider’s jersey and finishing sixth overall, just four seconds off the podium. Over the weekend, he won the Colombian national time trial championship.

This week, he’s set to race on home roads against the biggest names of Colombian cycling. Rigoberto Urán and Quintana will be the star attractions, but everyone could be talking about Bernal in a few years.

Sky sport director Brett Lancaster said Bernal was impressive in the early outing in team colors.

“Bernal was sort of apologetic after the race, but all in and all, he gave it a real good dig,” Lancaster said. “He was almost there on the podium, and it was a good start for the young guy. It shows what he can do.”

Bernal entered cycling thanks to his father, who raced in the 1990s. Much like a Colombian version of Peter Sagan, Bernal shined in mountain biking. He won silver and bronze medals in the junior category in the 2014 and 2015, respectively, in the world mountain bike championships.

Savio was tipped off about Bernal by a former Italian pro that works in the mountain biking world. Savio brought Bernal over to Europe to test him in the lab and give him a chance to race on the road. Savio, who’s been in cycling for more than four decades, knows a diamond in the rough when he sees one. He promptly signed Bernal to a four-year deal.

That’s when Bernal underwent the now-famous VO2max tests in Milan. Savio brought his young protégé in for testing in a lab where former pro Michele Bartoli works, and Bernal’s numbers were impressive. According to a report in MARCA two years ago, Bernal at 19 tested a VO2max of 88.8 milliliters per kilo.

In Australia, Bernal told RIDE journalist Rob Arnold said that initial number was “when I don’t train,” and suggested that he could improve to 90 to 91 ml/kg with training.

Bernal raced two seasons with Savio, posting 47 race days in 2016 and 68 days in 2017. Last year’s victory at the Tour de l’Avenir, when Bernal blew everyone away in the decisive mountain stages later in the race, got him a ticket to join Team Sky.

Bernal is adjusting well. Already fluent in Spanish and Italian, he was speaking English to reporters in Australia. He called Team Sky the “team of my dreams.”

Team Sky isn’t putting too much pressure on him just yet, but the team also knows it has a potential jewel on its hands.

“It’s the first time I’ve worked with him, but he’s got everything to be a big champion,” Lancaster said. “He asks the right questions, he listens to the staff and to his teammates. He comes from a mountain bike background, so he’s got the skills. He has all the attributes to become a big rider in the future.”

Lancaster confirmed that Bernal is on the long list to race the Vuelta a España later this season. That is still far down the road — first, he’ll likely race Paris-Nice or the Volta a Catalunya — but the idea is to bring Bernal for his grand tour debut this season.

“It’s not his first year pro. If he was a neo, you’d nurse him a little bit more. He’s penciled in for the Vuelta, but it depends on how the year plays out,” Lancaster said. “We won’t put much pressure on him this year. The Vuelta is the best grand tour to start with.”

How far Bernal can go remains to be seen. Staying healthy and motivated is important in any young professional’s trajectory. Sky’s deep and crowded talent pool means Bernal will have to earn his chances to lead. All indications so far suggest that he’s not shy about pushing the pedals when he gets the green light.