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Standing in a packed stadium in Medellín, Colombia, Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford spoke of the development of young Colombian talents Ivan Sosa and Egan Bernal, the cycling culture in Colombia, and the success this nation has brought Sky. He would not comment, unsurprisingly, on his team’s uncertain future.
Brailsford returned to South America for the Tour of Colombia 2.1, beginning Tuesday in Medellín. The Sky principal was tight-lipped, refusing to comment on, confirm, or deny any sponsorship rumors surrounding the team, including reported connections to the Israel Cycling Academy program. The conversation pivoted instead to Sky’s Colombian connections.
Team Sky has long looked to Colombia for talent. It signed Rigoberto Uran in 2011, then Sergio Henao, and, most recently, picked up Ivan Sosa from under Trek-Segafredo’s nose last fall. The team returns to Medellín this year with its brightest Colombian talent, Egan Bernal. And Brailsford is always on the lookout for the next Colombian star.
“When I first started Team Sky, we signed Rigoberto first and then Sergio (Henao). I had this image in my mind of a romantic Café de Colombia from when I grew up; I remember all of that,” Brailsford said, referring to the Colombian team that took the European peloton by storm in the 1980s.
Europe is a long way from Colombia, and the transition for Colombian riders hasn’t always gone smoothly. In recent years, Team Sky stopped expecting riders to quickly assimilate into European culture. The team now believes the responsibility instead lies on its staff to invest and educate themselves on the culture of the riders, in order to understand what is important to them, to get the best they can out of them.
“When you come into a structure like Sky, it’s quite a big change,” Brailsford said. “For all these young guys, you’ve got to be realistic and let them settle down and learn at their own pace. The greatest problem is when they have too much weight of expectation and then therefore not given the time to learn. They could still perform, but the focus has to be on developing, on enjoying. It’s an early, single year in their overall career, and everyone needs to remember that.”
Last year, Sky scored the most coveted signing of the transfer season, a young Colombian named Egan Bernal. The 21-year-old would score right out of the starting gate, winning Oro y Paz in Colombia. The momentum was underway and held fast. He won the Best Young Rider classification in nearly every race he entered, and won the overall at the Amgen Tour of California. By July, he was on the Tour de France roster, the youngest competitor in the race. Despite the distinction, he surpassed many on GC and was close to winning the Best Young Rider classification before a crash in stage 9 cost him precious time. He would finish 15th overall.
Geraint Thomas was 32 years of age last summer when he won the Tour de France. This year Bernal will be 22 when he leads Sky at the Giro d’Italia for the first time. When a young rider is as successful as Bernal, the excitement around them is palpable, and the pressure can be enormous. That makes it difficult for teams to manage their development.
“Egan is ten years behind where Geraint was,” Brailsford said. “We just need to keep everybody’s feet on the ground. I think he handles the pressure very well. Everybody gets excited with young talent but we have to be very, very careful to allow him to develop and be excited about his racing. His attitude towards it is fantastic. He’s flamboyant, he’s got character, so we don’t want to stifle that. He shouldn’t be thinking about winning or losing, just think, ‘I’m going to go race, give it my best shot and I don’t care what happens.’ That’s what we need to do, free him up.”
“Colombia has made great contributions to Sky. I would come home and think it’s a different continent,” Brailsford added. “If you expect to get the best out of the Latin Americans by bringing them into that – we’re going to squeeze and box you into this culture – it doesn’t work.”