They put Egan Bernal in a shiny new Lexus parked at a fetching angle underneath a big blue finish-line banner and told him to pop his head out the sunroof, where he held up his stuffed California bear and his tiny surfboard trophy and turned toward flashbulbs that blasted the happy, embarrassed, slightly overwhelmed smile of a young man not at all comfortable with how very good he is.
He’s so good.
Ten days earlier, before the Amgen Tour of California, CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers sent a text message to Tejay van Garderen of BMC Racing. It was a list of pre-race GC favorites. Names like Adam Yates, fourth at the 2016 Tour de France, and Rafal Majka, twice the Tour’s polka-dot jersey winner. “You targeting GC?” Neal asked. “I ain’t here on holiday,” van Garderen responded. Was there anyone missing from the list?
“Bernal? Team Sky?” van Garderen texted back.
Of course. Bernal, of Team Sky. The 21-year-old Colombian has finished no lower than sixth in any stage race he’s finished this year. He almost won Romandie, his first race back from injury. He might have won Catalunya, except for the crash that shattered his collarbone and cracked his shoulder. He won Colombia Oro y Paz, right in front of the last Colombian spoken of in the hushed tones of lavish talent, Nairo Quintana. He won the Amgen Tour not through cunning or guile but simply by being in a class of his own on the two climbing stages, which he won, alone. On the GC, he was the one rider better than Van Garderen, just as the American had foreseen, though the winning margin was not close — almost 90 seconds.
Bernal is the next big thing, everyone seems to be saying. And this time, everyone might be right.
Egan Arley Bernal was born on January 13, 1997, in Zipaquirá, outside Bogotà. He lives there now with his girlfriend, five minutes from his parents and his 12-year-old younger brother, who trains a lot but hasn’t yet learned to suffer. Bernal learned Italian in six months so he could communicate with his first road team, Androni Giocattoli, and English in another six months, so he could communicate with his second road team, Team Sky. He smiles and says his English is bad, but it’s not; it’s very good.
He reads novellas. Drama, he says. Sometimes after he trains he goes with his little brother to see a movie. He doesn’t like to sit in his apartment, feet up, recovering from his efforts. It’s too boring, even with a good novella. “I think, for me, it’s good to have a normal life,” he says. “Go with your family, go to the house, to my mother’s house, take a coffee with them.”
“I am a man, a normal person,” he says. He is emphatic on this point. He likes to learn. Not about anything in particular, just to learn, “about all, not something specific. Anything.”
Tao Geoghegan Hart is a young, thoughtful Brit with fair British skin and a strong, British time trial. He cools down on a trainer after providing emphatic proof of the latter in the Tour of California’s 34km time trial — he finished third, just behind BMC Racing teammates Tejay van Garderen and Patrick Bevin. He is, I think, quite similar to Bernal. There is an introspective and intellectual parity there, and almost a physical one. Bernal is the better climber; Geoghegan Hart better against the clock. It is easy to see how these two might grow up and intertwine themselves in a sport where a good teammate is worth his weight in watts.
“I think a lot of people say ‘Oh, he’s from altitude, blah-di-blah-blah, which is why he’s good,’” Geoghegan Hart says, spinning slowly on the trainer. “But that’s not why. You can see the way he carries himself. That’s why he’s good.”
Bernal carries himself like a man much older. He is quiet. Calm. Confident, but in no way braggadocios.
“I don’t know if inspired is the right word, but just being around him, for me, I’m two years older than him, but it’s like being with a big champion,” Geoghegan Hart says. “Just the care he takes with everything. It’s good to be around someone like that. If you have a friend like that, you see the level they’re on and it inspires you to at least be good enough to help him.”
In late March, Bernal sat in second overall just six kilometers from the end of the final stage of the Volta Catalunya when J.J. Rojas slipped on a patch of oil and crashed heavily. It was Bernal’s first European WorldTour stage race with Sky. He led the world’s best stage race team in his first major stage race. He’d been battling with Alejandro Valverde all week and sat 16 seconds behind. He clipped Rojas and landed on his left shoulder, fracturing his clavicle and scapula. He was put in an ambulance and brought to the hospital, leaving a podium spot lying on the greasy tarmac. It was March 25. On April 29, almost exactly a month later, he finished second at the Tour de Romandie, winning the uphill time trial ahead of riders like Primoz Roglic and Richie Porte.
“He’s very calm, very collected,” says Geoghegan Hart, who was on the Sky team in Catalunya. “Even if it’s the night of crashing and breaking his collarbone at his first World Tour European race with the team. He’s relaxed, not blaming anyone. He’s not looking for excuses, he’s just already excited for the next thing and motivated to come back. Look at Romandie, look here [in California], he didn’t let that small setback get to him.”
Gianni Savio’s bright white hair and dark mustache make the rounds in Italian press rooms at regular intervals, shaking hands and winking at passers by. The man behind Androni-Sidermec and many previous iterations of the same program has a small budget but casts a wide net. Every once in a while, he lands a big one.
It was another Italian, a mountain biker, who tipped Savio off to a new Colombian talent. Bernal had podiums at the junior mountain-bike world championships; he won a round of the US Cup in Bonelli, California, ahead of rising American star Christopher Blevins. But he’d never raced on the road. Savio flew him to Italy in the fall of 2015 and put him through a VO2 max test. He blew an 88.8. Savio raved, saying he may have found a Colombian better than Quintana, and signed him to a four-year deal.
The first year went as expected. His positioning skills were lacking, a deficit no engine can overcome. “I was always behind in the cars, because I was a little bit scared to be up there with them,” Bernal says. But he improved quickly, leaning on handling skills gained on the mountain bike. By August, he finished fourth at the Tour de l’Avenir, the biggest espoir stage race in the world, against riders four years his senior.
In 2017 he won the Tour de Savoie Mont Blanc, a 2.2-level event, and the Sibiu Cycling Tour. Then he won l’Avenir by over a minute, ahead of Bjorn Lambrecht, who has since signed with Lotto-Soudal, and Niklas Eg, who rides for Trek-Segafredo. He was 20.
Six weeks later he raced his first monument, Il Lombardia. He finished 13th, sandwiched between Nicholas Roche and Ben Hermans, just five seconds behind Quintana, less than a minute behind winner Vincenzo Nibali.
Team Sky came calling. They bought him out of his deal with Androni and sent him to the first WorldTour race of the season, the Tour Down Under. He finished sixth overall. It’s turned out to be his worst GC result all year.
Rarity begets excitement. It is rare that a rider settles into the front of the world’s biggest stage races with such ease. Rare as Quintana, second overall in his first Tour de France; as Wout van Aert, a three-time cyclocross champion and spring classics threat at 23; as Peter Sagan, winning Grand Tour stages at 21. We draw parallels and make predictions, applying the pressure of expectation where it didn’t exist before. Some match the prognostication — such as Sagan — while others struggle to shine with the brilliance with that first opened our eyes.
“A lot of people are telling me, ‘You can win a Tour, you can win a Giro, you can win a Vuelta, you can win everything,’ but I prefer to think about today,” Bernal says. It’s an old platitude, a macro version of “we’re taking it day-by-day.” It deflects pressure. Or tries to, anyway.
Bernal has weaknesses. He lost 2.5 seconds per kilometer to van Garderen in the California time trial. He says his endurance is lacking. He suffers on late climbs. “I arrive with them, but I suffer a lot,” he says. “I think all guys suffer a lot, but I think sometimes in the long stages, or the last climb, I suffer a little bit more.”
On Tuesday, Spanish daily Marca reported that Bernal will race his first Tour de France this year. Last Saturday, sitting in California’s yellow jersey with a stuffed bear in the background, he said in no uncertain terms that he would not be in France this July.
“I’m thinking about today,” he says. “I don’t think about tomorrow.”
But Egan, we do.
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers interviewed Egan Bernal at the Amgen Tour of California; portions of that interview were used here. Listen to that conversation from an episode of the CyclingTips Podcast, below.