Bernal is back: Why the Ineos Grenadiers rider is being tipped for a Tour de France top-five

The Colombian returns to the race he won in 2019 with a genuine hope of a top placing for the first time since his devastating crash

With each passing race in which he competes, something that seemed tragically unthinkable even just one year ago is becoming eminently plausible: Egan Bernal, he who won the Tour de France at the age of 22 and then the Giro d’Italia two years later before being left with only a 5% chance of survival after crashing head first into the back of a bus in Colombia, is closing in on winning bike races yet again.

The Ineos Grenadiers rider is enjoying the sort of consistent season that he demanded from himself pre-horror crash, but so few ever expected it would come after the training ride collision that left him with a fractured vertebra, femur, patella, ribs and a punctured lung. He was lucky to survive, and it can be deemed a miracle that he returned to bike racing just eight months after the accident that almost cut his life short at age 24. Still, luck is also earned, and Bernal has worked tirelessly and admirably in the past 30 months to give himself a fighting chance of returning to the form and condition that had most pundits foreseeing a career filled with multiple Grand Tour titles.

Third at March’s Volta a Catalunya, one of cycling’s most prestigious one-week stage races, was the surest sign yet that Bernal is back, and he was only 10 seconds off repeating that result at this month’s Tour de Suisse. In dropping a place in the final day’s time trial to Lidl-Trek’s Mattias Skjelmose, Bernal said that he was “feeling a bit sad”. The hunger, alongside the performance, is most definitely back, and now he’s hoping he can operate as a co-leader at the Tour de France alongside Carlos Rodríguez.

That was never the initial plan. At the season’s outset, Bernal spoke about only competing in one Grand Tour – the Vuelta a España. But adding the Tour to his calendar started to be publicly spoken about in the spring by his team, and the 27-year-old only has one ambition when he takes to the startline in Florence. “If I participate, it will be with the desire to compete in the GC and to finish as high as possible,” he told L’Èquipe recently.

Bernal rode in the 2023 Tour and Vuelta but as a support rider, using both races as part of his long-term strategy to find his previous levels. He has revealed that his performance metrics in recent months have been better than when he was routinely winning stage races, but he has also been honest that the standard of competition is tougher than ever, and if he is to add to his palmarès, he will need to reach a condition he didn’t have even at his devastating best. “My best level is winning the Tour de France or the Giro – and at the moment I’m not there yet,” he added to the French publication. “So I’m still missing something.”

Ineos have frequently cited Bernal’s injury as one of the main reasons behind their failure to compete for the Tour’s yellow jersey ever since his 2019 victory, believing that they had a rider who was capable of challenging Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard, the two riders who’ve shared the last four maillot jaunes. Their unwavering faith and support of him is now being rewarded, and Bernal’s return to the general classification fight equally hasn’t gone unnoticed by rival teams.

Read an exclusive interview with Egan Bernal in Rouleur magazine, issue 128.
Egan Bernal issue 128

Pavel Sivakov, now of UAE Team Emirates but Bernal’s teammate of six years until this season, told Rouleur that he “can definitely see Egan being right up there in the Tour.” Pressed on what position that meant, Sivakov said: “Top-five for sure, and maybe even better.”

Sivakov knows Bernal better than most in the peloton, but is as surprised as many are by how well his former colleague is performing. “I am really quite impressed by his level,” Sivakov added. “After his big crash, I think we all thought it would be hard for him to come back, but this year he has made a big step up and I wouldn’t be surprised if he is doing some of his best ever numbers, probably even better than when he won the Tour.

“Egan has always been extremely strong mentally – he is a fighter and you saw that in his recovery. I didn’t race with him too much last year, but whenever we crossed paths I had the feeling that after such a big accident he had the attitude of: I could have lost my life that day, so whatever comes now is a bonus, and I’m just going to enjoy everything.”

But enjoyment does not mean acceptance. Bernal is a winner and will be one of Ineos’s two or three hopes at the Tour (Tom Pidcock has also been staking his claim to be a protected leader), then he’ll expect performances worthy of stage victories, at the very least. “I think it’s a course that suits him pretty well, especially the stages over 2,000m,” Sivakov assessed. “I think we can expect him to be even better than what he has been so far this season.”

The training ride crash will always form a major part of the Bernal story – it was too brutal and career-altering to be a mere footnote – but after first silencing the medics and then the wider sport in resuming his professional cycling career, in 2024 Bernal has been writing one of the sport’s greatest and most unlikeliest comeback stories. The Tour chapter of 2024 is about to be penned.

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