Egan Bernal on stage 8 of the 2020 Tour de France.

Egan Bernal describes his crash and its aftermath in painful detail

Bernal hopes to live up to his little-known nickname ‘Wolverine’ by making another comeback, but he’s not working to any specific timeline.

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It’s almost four weeks since the crash that put Egan Bernal into ICU and set the cycling world, and the whole of Colombia, alight with concern for the 2019 Tour de France champion.

Two weeks after being discharged from hospital, the 25-year-old sat down with Vicky Dávila from Colombian magazine Semana for an emotional conversation, which contained a wealth of insight about the ordeal, his recovery and what drives the man himself.

It’s what I think about the most lately,” Bernal echoed the interviewer’s opening, that she’s happy he’s alive. “I’m alive, it’s like a second chance. It’s like being born again and I enjoy every little thing that happens to me.”

The interview was conducted in the garden of the property he’s been staying in since leaving hospital. The house – where he took his ‘first steps’ – is close to where he’ll be doing his early therapies, and was organised by the Ineos Grenadiers staff who prolonged their stay in Colombia.

On the day of the bus crash – for which Bernal dishes out no blame – he and his teammates had been staying in a hotel with a team doctor, mechanic and the Colombian’s personal masseuse. The riders had gone out for a training ride, most of them on road bikes while Bernal and one other opted for TT, and the “very aggressive” position that demands.

“I did an interval, ahead of my teammates, I look ahead and there’s nothing,” Bernal began to explain the moments before the crash. “There’s a car behind me that’s escorting me. I keep doing my interval and I remember that I was going 58 km/h. That is like hammer down with the wind in your favour. I was going 58. I start looking and it was 59, 60, 61, 62, and it was when I saw that speed that I crashed into the bus.”

He was badly winded – no surprise given the extent of his injuries, including a collapsed lung and 11 broken ribs – and very lucky that help was so quickly on hand from his support car.

“He started to calm me down, but I couldn’t breathe,” Bernal said. “It is a moment in which you lose air. I couldn’t breathe and I thought: well, at a certain point you will have to breathe again. It always happens, when you crash the air goes out and after a while it comes back, but nothing came back. I began to despair, but inside I thought that I had to calm down. The air returned just as I felt I was passing out, and that’s when I looked up and saw the bus.”

The team doctor was called and Bernal’s masseuse drove him straight to the scene. The Colombian was in a lot of pain – “Absolutely everything hurt” – but the doctor quickly identified that his patient’s back, neck and leg were all cause for concern, and would not let Bernal remove his helmet.

“The doctor told me I couldn’t move and I asked him why. He looked at my leg and it was inflamed, swollen. The bone almost wanted to come out of the skin, and I thought: my left femur. It was obviously broken.

“They helped me unclip my foot and the doctor stabilised the fracture. He took me by the waist and two other people – I don’t know if they were doctors or knew about medicine – helped him a lot. They took hold of my foot and stretched me out. They repositioned the bone and it hurt a lot. I was telling them: no, no, I beg you, please no. It helped me not lose so much blood, I think I lost 2.5 litres in total. Those little things they did helped so that when I got to the hospital it wasn’t so bad.”

With the most pressing injuries stabilised, they waited for the ambulance, in which Bernal hoped he’d finally be able to access something for the pain. However, it was a ‘basic’ unit with no medicine on board.

“It was very frustrating [in the ambulance] because they didn’t give me anything for the pain,” Bernal began, before showing some characteristic good humour at the most unlikely time. “Before it arrived, something funny happened. I heard a siren like an ambulance and the doctor and everyone told me: Egan, the ambulance is coming, listen… But that ambulance went straight on, it wasn’t coming our way.”

Desperate for relief, Bernal said he ‘took it out on’ the doctors and staff surrounding him in the ambulance, unable to do anything but rage until they arrived at the Clínica Universidad de La Sabana.

“I was conscious the whole time until I got to the hospital. They put me to sleep there because I was in a lot of pain. I never thought it was so serious. Obviously I was in excruciating pain, the greatest pain of my life. I lasted 30 or 40 minutes from when I crashed until I got to the hospital. When I work up from surgery, they told me, ‘You could have died’.”

On arrival at the hospital, and before being put to sleep, Bernal was met with family and friends who had been warned of what was happening.

“I wanted to pass out, I wanted them to put me to sleep, and I began to see familiar faces, some friends, my coach and my girlfriend, María Fernanda, who came from work…If I had known that I was going into surgery and that I could die, well, at least I would have greeted them or said goodbye, but at that moment I was just focussed on pain, so when they entered and began to ask me things, I just said: please put me to sleep, I want to sleep, I’m serious, and then they put me to sleep.

“Before that though, something funny happened. My girlfriend is a veterinarian and she came in her uniform, which is very similar to that of the doctors. When we got out of the ambulance, they gave her the oxygen, I think they thought she was a nurse.”

The procedure that Bernal faced on that first night in hospital was partly to assess the extent of his injuries, and then to stabilise the worst of them. Neurosurgeon Dr Gustavo Uriza was responsible for his spine, and early in the surgery, he went out to inform Bernal’s family of the situation, warning them that it was a miracle Egan had made it to the clinic alive. As Bernal himself said, it was the neurosurgeon’s job to be realistic and tell them what could happen.

“[He told me] that 95% would have died or become paraplegic,” Bernal recalled a conversation with his neurosurgeon. “He said it was a very serious surgery and that in his career, he had operated on hundreds of spinal columns and that, of this magnitude, only two had turned out well. I was the second.” 

That first surgery lasted more than 12 hours. And it wasn’t until Bernal woke up that he understood the seriousness of his situation.

“They had removed the tube from my mouth so I could breathe, and they were talking to me,” Bernal said. “I woke up, and they said, ‘Move your legs’. At that moment I thought: it was serious. It was an instinct. They told me that because I might have lost the mobility of my legs. I moved them and they began to ask me, ‘Do you feel here? Do you feel there?’. Luckily everything felt bad. That was when they began to tell me, because they didn’t tell me at once. At that time I did not understand the seriousness of the matter.”

All the while, Bernal’s family waited for news. The last thing he had told his tearful mother before going into surgery was that it was nothing, he’d just broken his femur and maybe a few ribs. Then Dr Uriza dealt his dose of realism.

“When I woke up in intensive care I felt physical pain, but they, my mom, my dad, my girlfriend, my little brother, had a different pain,” Bernal explained. “And I think it was very hard for them to see me in bed with the two tubes coming out of my lungs. Imagine every time I breathed, the blood ran, came, ran, came, and next to the bed there were two giant jars with all the blood that was draining, and I couldn’t move. They had to change my diaper and my mother had to change my diaper again. She said, ‘He’s my boy, he’s my baby again…’.”

Egan Bernal celebrates winning the 2019 Tour de France with his family on the Champs-Élysées.

Bernal is known for his close family unit. It’s hard to forget the images of Bernal in yellow on the Champs-Élysées, sharing a moment with his family, huddled together with their heads bowed, in the centre of a huge pressing crowd.

“My family is everything. Always, since I was a child, the only thing I wanted was for my parents to feel proud of me and to set a good example for my little brother,” he said. “So I give my life for them, for my family, and it really is the most sacred thing I have. Being alive and being able to share with them, after everything I had, is a plus. After this happened we are closer than ever. I feel proud and very happy to have such a united and beautiful family. I believe that we all give our lives for each other and it is something that makes me proud.”

Though he had lots of surgeries to contend with, the recovery was fast in the early days, with lots of progress from one day to the next. As soon as he could move without causing too much pain, Bernal was determined to start working with resistance bands, or have one of his parents push against his foot to activate the muscles.

Happy landmarks included getting the chest drains out and moving out of intensive care, all leading towards the stunning photo of him standing up, inside two weeks from the crash.

“There are people who are in the ICU for months, I only two weeks, but I felt that it was a long time. When they let me out, and two days before I was able to leave, that was when I was able to stand up. Out of nowhere, I was like: come on, I want to stand up, I think I can hold on, and of course, two people, on either side, in case I fall. And I could hold myself, so it was a nice thing. And when they took that photo of me with all the doctors who saved me, that was special, it was something very cool. In fact, I think I’m going to print it out and put it somewhere in my house because it’s a special moment for me.”

For the time being, Bernal is staying close to the hospital while he undergoes intense physical therapy and continues to recover, with self-sufficiency being the primary goal. He’s come a long way in a short time, but he’s painfully aware of how far he has to go.

“They are mixed feelings,” he said. “It’s going to be a very long process, I’ve already gone through a very hard stage, but there are other stages to come that are also about patience and that are going to be quite painful up to a certain point, and that worries me.

“When I finally got here, where I’m staying, being able to see something different was comforting, but I still thought there was a long way to go. I’m happy to be alive, and I’m not going to forget that. I have to be grateful because now that I can breathe and feel, at least I feel pain, you know. It’s cool, but what now?”

Asked about cycling, or more specifically, ‘the bike’, Bernal responded as anyone would expect.

“I want to go back, it’s what I love most. I’m a cyclist, I feel like if I wasn’t on a bike I wouldn’t know what to do. Sure, I would start doing something else, but right now I feel like a cyclist, I feel like an athlete and for me cycling is my lifestyle.”

Bad weather and landslides meant that stage 19 of the 2019 Tour de France ended without a stage win for Egan Bernal, but he did climb into the yellow jersey.

And the Tour de France? Bernal hasn’t been able to perform to his best since he won the race in 2019, so he’s never really faced Tadej Pogačar in full flight. His 2021 Giro d’Italia victory shows the 2019 Tour was not just a flash in the pan, but the Colombian is pragmatic about what it takes to carry yellow into Paris.

“If it is difficult when you are completely well, I don’t know what it will be like now,” Bernal admitted. “But I want to be the best version of Egan Bernal. What Egan Bernal can do right now, obviously I’m going to work to get to that level…I think that in fact I bring out my best version in these moments when I have an injury, I feel that I can be a little bit more focussed and that’s what I want, what I want to aim for.” 

That focussed recovery mentality has earned Bernal a unique and powerful nickname in Colombia, thanks to a former coach called Sergio Avellaneda. 

“Every time I fell, for example, the doctor said it would be six months until I compete again and after three weeks I was competing, so I’ve always recovered super fast,” Bernal explained, “it happened once, twice, three times, and everyone told me: no, it’s your turn to be Wolverine, because he recovers very quickly. After every fall I kind of recover even faster and every time it’s like ‘Wolverine, Wolverine’.”

His last words were for his home country of Colombia, which mobilised in support of their beloved son from the day of his crash. Nurses would visit and tell him their mothers were praying for him, the national soccer team offered their support, and he’s had more personal videos and messages than it’s possible to read.

“I feel super proud to be Colombian, I think that this type of thing, like offering the rosary to cyclist X, I don’t know him but he’s a good boy, let’s offer him the rosary, these are things that I say, this is Colombia. I don’t think it happens in other parts of the world, and even less so with the faith that mothers and grandmothers have here in Colombia. I hope one day to return all this, hopefully on a bike in a race.”

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