Sitting down with Egan Bernal: Lessons learned, and what lies ahead

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RÍONEGRO, Colombia — Last August, Egan Bernal opened his eyes and realized he was in a hospital bed. He looked around, unable to remember what happened to him. He knew he had finished the Tour de France. He wasn’t sure if he had raced, or crashed out of, the Vuelta a España.

It was not the Vuelta. He’d suffered facial trauma and a small brain bleed at the Clasica San Sebastian, crashing hard with just under 20km to go in a pileup that also took out Mikel Landa. The brain bleed meant he’d have to be off the bike for three weeks. There would be no Vuelta.

“It was a blow to me, to be so well at 100 percent after the Tour, and then to see myself so fragile,” Bernal says, speaking in Spanish, sitting in the fan-filled lobby of the race hotel at the Tour of Colombia. The race’s third stage finished a few hours ago. Bernal was fifth. In three days, he hasn’t finished outside the top-ten yet. And we haven’t even hit the mountains.

He’s back to full strength, in other words. But that crash at San Sebastian sent him lower than ever before. He rode with his mother for his first ride back, in late August of last year. She prepared herself to ride fast, as usual, so she could keep up with her son. She instead dropped him. He asked her to ease off so he could keep up. Little by little his form returned and he began to feel like himself again.

He struggled both physically and psychologically after being at top form following the Tour. He was eager to return to racing, and after his forced rest period, and a few weeks to get faster than his mother, the team caved in, allowing him to race a few one-day races in Italy last October.

“I wanted to finish the season racing, but of course the team kept telling me not to race,” he said. “After telling them over and over how much I wanted to compete, they gave me some opportunities in a few races. After seeing my results and looking at the situation, they were right.”

Bernal was a hot story all year; the next big talent from Colombia, who many believe is sure to break records, sure to become the first Colombian winner of the Tour de France. He did not disappoint, winning his first race with Team Sky at home at Oro y Paz, soon followed by his first WorldTour victory at the AMGEN Tour of California. The performance was so impressive that Sir Dave Brailsford, manager of Team Sky, made the rare decision of naming his youngest rider to the world’s best Tour de France team.

“I wasn’t really nervous and I don’t know why, maybe because I had a really great first half of the season. I was racing the Tour de France at only 21 years of age, they could not have expected too much from me and besides, I had not requested to go to the Tour, it was their decision,” Bernal said.

Bernal had never raced with Froome prior to the Tour. Arriving in France, he was shy and spoke very little with Froome. He was star struck being the youngest on the team with all the big names, and racing the Tour for the first time. Everything was new.

“Here I was thinking – it’s Froome! I arrived at the Tour and found him to be a completely different person than I thought, very calm and friendly. He saw me a little lost and told me, ‘you need to do this, try and have this rhythm,’ and to be patient because of what was pending ahead. You have to laugh because he was so calm having won so many Tours and here I was, never having won any Tours. I needed to be calm as well. I would have felt bad if something had happened to me to make me abandon the race, leaving them with a rider less.”

Once the race entered the mountains, Bernal was assigned to pace the team as far as he could up the climbs. He didn’t have to reach a certain point, he just had to go as far as he could. Most days, that was nearly to the finish.

“I would think, just make it to the next kilometer,” Bernal says. “Okay make it around the next curve, no the next one, and the next one, and the next. I was suffering but then suddenly we were almost to the finish of the stage. That gave me a lot of confidence and the peloton gave me more respect and so everything becomes a little easier.”

He crossed the line in Paris, helping his team celebrate another yellow jersey and overall victory. Froome went into the Tour hoping to win, but came up short with his own teammate, Geraint Thomas, winning his first Tour instead.

The time inside a team like Sky, all the little things he learns from more experienced riders like Froome and Thomas, that’s as valuable as anything, Bernal says.

“Since Froome has been here in Colombia, we’ve been talking and training a lot. It’s incredible the mentality that he has. His number one objective is the Tour de France, sure he prepared for this race but everything is to prepare for the Tour. Sometimes you’ll think, I need to drop my intensity a little bit because the big race is coming up soon. If he does well here, then great, but remaining focused on his eating, and training and everything, for me he’s number one.”

Earlier this year, Sky announced Bernal would lead the team for the first time at the Giro d’Italia. Thomas was rumored to race it as well before news broke that he would race the Tour instead, and Bernal would be leading his first team in a grand tour, in his second grand tour ever.

“When I first heard the news, I thought to have a rider like Thomas in the Giro would help me a lot. He just finished winning the Tour,” Bernal says. “It would be nice to have another possibility so that the pressure is not all on me. Sure, little by little one is able to get there, but either way we have really good riders so we will be able to have a good team. Now we just wait to enjoy it.”

This week Bernal is opening his season for the second year in a row, racing in front of his home crowd in Antioquia, at the Tour of Colombia. He trains regularly on many of the roads featured in the race with his training partner and close friend, Oscar Sevilla (Team Medellín). Forgetting Sevilla’s controversial past, Bernal says he has learned a lot from the Spaniard, and often enjoys picking his brain about past races and experiences in Europe.

“I love hearing these things because you learn from other people’s experience and history. He’ll tell me about specific climbs and other races that I am not familiar with,” Bernal adds. “The thing that I have learned from him the most, is to simply enjoy riding your bike. So little by little, you start to pick up the same energy.”

Sitting in the lobby with Bernal before the final stages of the Tour Colombia this weekend, he is treated like a rock star. Sky’s communication officer is never too far from Bernal when he is in the public, acting as a sort of bodyguard, allowing him some space from the adoring cycling fans that have come to see the young talent race. Rumors swirl about Sky’s boss, Brailsford meeting with the governor about a possible Colombian based team, something the world is waiting and eager to see.

“This race, of course, is special to me, to be able to begin my season at home,” Bernal says. “Before we would have to train in snow and cold wind, training overseas. Here we’re in a nice climate, with our family, we can speak Spanish, so it feels like the season is shorter. To have a WorldTour team, the first for Colombia, I can only imagine how special that would be. I’ve heard the news that you speak of, but I would rather leave that alone. It will happen as it will happen. I prefer to just ride my bike, do it well and have a good season.”

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