BRUGES, Belgium (VN) — World championships are always a nest of rumors as journalists, team managers, and rider agents share gossip about late-season transfers, equipment and gear changes, and who’s still on the market.
As far as rumors go, this is a juicy one.
This one’s been around already for a few weeks, but the whisper level has grown to a roar despite denials from the team and Bernal’s agent in media interviews.
The French daily L’Equipe poured gas on the speculation fire with a big spread in its latest edition, suggesting a possible exit to such teams as Movistar, Israel Start-Up Nation, and even Cofidis.
- Dave Brailsford linked to possible exit
- Egan Bernal must ‘rediscover’ the joy of racing
- Movistar cuts ties with Miguel Ángel López
Sources also tell VeloNews of a possible rift between the Colombian riders and the UK-centric focus in the team’s culture and DNA. Ten of the team’s 32 riders in 2021 were from a host of Spanish-speaking nations, with Bernal at the top of that hierarchy.
Right now, it’s all smokes and mirrors about what would be a blockbuster deal-breaker for Bernal.
L'Equipe is running with the Bernal/Ineos split story, suggesting the Colombian has 3 likely options – Israel SUN, Movistar and…
wait for it…
— Peter Cossins (@petercossins) September 21, 2021
Bernal made history with Ineos Grenadiers in 2019 by becoming the first Tour de France winner from Colombia and remains under contract with the squad in a multi-million-dollar deal through the 2023 season.
Why would he want to leave? There are whispers that he was unhappy over team tactics at the Vuelta a España, where Bernal finished sixth overall, as well as friction with some of Ineos Grenadiers’ legendary strict nutritional and training guidelines.
Throughout the Vuelta, Bernal often commented to the media in a whimsical manner about his desire to race with more freedom and less structure and hinted that he wanted to race in a more open and attacking posture.
There were rumors that Richard Carapaz also wanted to leave, and the pair have reportedly bristled over outright leadership and future captaincy of the team.
Leaving won’t be easy, or cheap
If Bernal does want to leave, first he’d have to break his contract with Ineos Grenadiers.
That’s easier said than done, and much of it would depend on what the contract would say in terms of providing any exit clauses, which could be costly for anyone trying to buy him out.
And the other half of the equation would be where Bernal might land.
There would be no shortage of suitors for Bernal, and Movistar would be at the top of the list.
The team recently jettisoned Miguel Ángel López — expected to rejoin Astana in 2022 — following his hasty exit from the Vuelta a España that angered riders and staffers within the Spanish WorldTour team.
Movistar has a long history of recruiting and signing top Latin American riders, and the team could be a natural fit for Bernal. So far, the ever-discreet Movistar has not commented on a possible Bernal arrival. Reports of a peace deal between Bernal’s powerful agent and Movistar also crack that door open a little bit more.
Israel Start-Up Nation could be a natural destination as well, especially considering that much of the team’s elder riders are leaving. Dan Martin and André Greipel both exit this winter, while the future of Chris Froome remains uncertain.
Bernal’s arrival would mean that Froome would all but cede any hopes of winning another Tour, so there could be tension there. Geraint Thomas, a 2018 Tour winner, has also been linked in a move to Israel Start-Up Nation, as his contract with Ineos Grenadiers is up at the end of this season.
L’Equipe also mentioned Cofidis, which would have plenty of space on its roster to make room for Bernal if it could find the money to sign him and a fleet of support riders.
Unlike many top stars, such as Peter Sagan or ex-pro Alberto Contador, who often bring an entourage of teammates, staffers, and sport directors when they move from team to team, Bernal still seems a bit of a free agent.
If there is an exit, it would mark a dramatic turn-around for Ineos Grenadiers, which looked to assure its future at the top of the Tour de France hierarchy when it plucked the Colombian in 2018.
Ineos Grenadiers finds itself eclipsed by the rise of Tadej Pogačar
Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers have since been eclipsed by the sudden rise of Tadej Pogačar and the growing might of UAE Emirates. Jumbo-Visma and the ever-steady Primož Roglič are also putting pressure on Ineos Grenadiers’ long-running grip of power on the Tour.
Bernal was the recruitment jewel for Ineos Grenadiers’ boss David Brailsford — himself at the center of speculation that he might leave the helm of the team to take over Ineos’s ever-sprawling sports empire — and led the way for a major infusion of Spanish-speaking riders.
Ineos Grenadiers, and formerly Sky, won seven yellow jerseys in eight years from 2012 to 2019, with four different riders, something unprecedented in cycling history.
Egan Bernal a l'embarras du choix pour trouver une éventuelle nouvelle équipe
En désaccord avec son équipe Ineos-Grenadiers, le Colombien pourrait quitter le clan britannique, avec lequel il est lié jusqu'en 2023. Quelques pistes existent déjà… https://t.co/gQ2QHFfC9H pic.twitter.com/jkKyFlnqxL
— L'ÉQUIPE (@lequipe) September 21, 2021
Despite winning back-to-back editions of the Giro, its Tour performances seem a step off its domination throughout much of the 2010s.
If Bernal would leave, Ineos Grenadiers would be back to square one for the peloton’s richest team. Without a guarantee like Bernal, the team would need to stitch together a patchwork of veterans and promising riders to try to take it to Pogačar and Roglič.
Of course, this media posturing could be an end-game by Bernal to try to force some internal changes to better suit his needs and ambitions.
With his back seemingly in top form, Bernal remains a force to be reckoned with in international racing. His victory at the Giro d’Italia in May proved he can still win a grand tour, and at 24, he should be entering the best years of his career.
Would Ineos Grenadiers let him slip away? Stay tuned.