Team managers are always on the lookout for emerging talent to sign, to bolster their stocks for the seasons to come. And in 19-year-old Colombian Egan Bernal, Gianni Savio and his Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec team have signed one of the most promising prospects in world cycling.
Daniel Ostanek caught up with Bernal and Savio to learn more about the young climber, and to find out why the team made the decision to sign the inexperienced Bernal for no fewer than four years.
Last week in northern Italy, something special was happening. The Giro del Trentino, known to many as the main preparation race for the Giro d’Italia, was well underway, and Team Sky’s Mikel Landa was busy confirming himself as a major favourite for the season’s first Grand Tour.
Beyond the battle for form and the psychological upperhand ahead of the Corsa Rosa, a young Colombian was riding the biggest race of his young career. By the end of it Egan Bernal had swapped the red jersey of his team, Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, for the white of the best young rider.
So far it doesn’t sound too notable – a young rider from an Italian ProContinental team wins a jersey at the Giro warm-up. There was more than meets the eye here though, for Bernal is just 19 years old and has skipped from the junior level straight to the pros, having barely raced on the road before this year.
Bernal found himself in vaunted company on stage three, Trentino’s queen stage. On the tough 12km climb of Fai della Paganella, the lead group was packed with WorldTour climbing talent – Landa, Jakob Fuglsang, Domenico Pozzovivo and Jean-Christophe Péraud were all up there, as expected.
The pint-sized Colombian was there too – a teen interloper among the elite. He would go on to finish with the lead group, taking ninth after the descent into Mezzolombardo.
A day earlier he was on the offensive, finding himself at the head of the chase group on the climb to Anras, before mechanical problems in the final kilometre saw him drop to 43rd at the finish.
Misfortune befell Bernal at March’s Settimana Coppi e Bartali too. On stage two, his 10th race day as a professional, he crashed after attacking from the lead group in the final kilometres. He had lost the chance to go for his first ever pro win but consoled himself with the young rider’s jersey.
“These races have been a learning experience for me,” says Bernal. “As for the fall, that was caused by a lack of experience. I think it’s better for those things to happen at the beginning of my career, rather than later when more important things are at stake.”
The important things Bernal has in mind are the big three – the Giro, Tour and Vuelta, races that he watched with his father German as a child. But rather than being inspired by the feats of the professionals he saw at those races, the motivation to ride came from his family.
“I started because my dad was a cyclist in his youth, not a professional though. When I was eight he took me to ride at the weekends,” he says. “One day there was a race for the kids in our town, but my dad didn’t want me to compete. Another friend signed me up and gave me a helmet.”
Of course, Bernal ended up winning the race. The prize of a cycling kit and an 18-month cycling club membership saw that Bernal would continue on after his successful start to racing in Zipaquirá.
The city, located some 2,652 metres above sea level in central Colombia, was Bernal’s home until his big move last winter (he still visits home to train, like many of his compatriots.) His father German works in the city’s major tourist attraction, the Salt Cathedral, a church built in the tunnels of an old salt mine.
When it comes to cycling, Zipaquirá has not provided the sport with many big names over the years. Perhaps its most notable luminary is 1950 Vuelta a Colombia winner Efraín Forero. Bernal tells me that the the city has a strong mountain bike scene though, which, up until this year, was his chosen discipline.
Throughout his youth he won numerous races around Colombia at various age levels, eventually competing internationally. His biggest results came at the Junior World Championships, taking bronze in the cross-country event in 2014 and 2015. The focus on off-road racing meant he hadn’t done much road racing at all before his move to Androni.
“Since I started cycling I have only done a few road races,” he says. “I cannot remember exactly how many but I know that in the past two years I had only done three road races, at most.”
Last year he rode two and won both. One of them was a stage race in Colombia, the Clasica Juventudes Cajica. The other was a hilly race partly run on gravel roads, the grandly-named Sognando il Giro Delle Fiandre: Dream of the Tour of Flanders.
The race is held near Pisa in Italy, and it was around this time that Bernal signed the Androni deal. It was unexpected – he says that he was preparing for his first year in the U23 ranks, and had offers from several mountain bike teams until Androni manager Gianni Savio contacted him.
“Paolo Alberati [Bernal’s agent] proposed him to me,” remembers Savio. “Actually he came to me with the Italian amateur champion Davide Pacchiardo, but I told him I was looking for a climber, so he introduced me to Egan.
“It was September and I was at the Coppa Agostoni. When Paolo sent me his UCI test results I decided to take the bet and signed him up to a four-year contract.”
Such a long contract is an unprecedented move for any rider, let alone a teenager with little road racing experience. But to learn about those test results is to appreciate Savio’s choice.
Bernal’s VO2max, a measure of the oxygen a human can consume while exercising at maximum capacity, is recorded as being 88.8ml/kg/min. To put that into context, Miguel Indurain’s reported VO2max was 88, Greg Lemond’s 92.5.
“I did two tests in Italy. The other was after a cross-country World Cup event when I was well trained,” says Bernal. “The results were a little better than the result everyone talks about. I know I must follow it with hard work.”
So Bernal can check one item off the list of ingredients required to make a great cyclist, and his new team are doing all they can to help him along the way. Compatriot Rodolfo Torres was signed up from the now-defunct Colombia-Coldeportes to aid the transition to life in a new country, while he can look to five-time Monument winner Michele Bartoli for his coaching.
“It’s good for me that Bartoli is in charge of my training because he is a very experienced rider who can teach me a lot,” says Bernal. “Rodolfo helps me too. I like Italy, I really like the lifestyle. What has changed is that I’m away from family but it is nothing too crazy.”
So far so good, and the results have been quite amazing considering Bernal’s age and lack of experience. Earlier in the season he finished 18th at the La Méditerranéenne stage race (his first ever pro race) and 12th at the GP Larciano. But did he expect to be riding this well?
“When I started, competency was the expectation but I did not know what was going to happen,” he says. “The pace was a lot harder than I expected but the team has helped me to stay tranquilo. So far I have learnt to be patient and keep a cool head.”
Both he and the team are aware that it’s still very early days though, and there is a definitive plan in place to develop his talents.
“Our plan is to help Egan grow, gradually. With his long contract I can work on a project to create a team with him as the leader,” says Savio. “At the moment he must ride without pressure, and accustom his body to various efforts which are different from mountain biking.”
After his success in Trentino, Bernal is off to Spain next month, for the two-day Vuelta a Madrid, followed later in the month by the four-day Tour of Bihor in Romania. This is all part of the process — Savio says that to take Bernal to a race like Tirreno-Adriatico would’ve been too much for such a young rider.
Bernal is following the plan too. His swift progress doesn’t mean that he is getting carried away. In fact, far from it.
“I still have the same goal as I did in January – just to gain experience and adapt well to racing,” says Bernal. “If good results come with it then that’s all the better!”
Those results will certainly come for Bernal if his first few months in the professional peloton are anything to go by. With high ambitions, and the talent level to match, it shouldn’t be long before the victories are rolling in for the young escarabajo.
Egan Bernal – remember the name.