Flourish or flounder: Egan Bernal and other cycling prodigies
From the junior ranks to the Tour de France in just three years – it sounds like a ‘how-to’ guide, doesn’t it? Only, as is no doubt the case with many of those handbooks, it’s one well-palmed but ultimately rarely delivered upon.
Those prodigious riders, once-in-a-generation talents who show their class from the very beginning, are a special breed. And that’s what Team Sky’s Colombian, Egan Bernal, looked like this July. After becoming the youngest Tour de France rider since Fabio Felline in 2010, the 21-year-old showed exactly why he’s so highly-touted at the biggest stage of them all.
For mountain stage after mountain stage, the lad from Zipaquirá had been at the front of the group of GC favourites, one last domestique among the heads of state. On the mythical Alpe d’Huez he was there shutting down attacks from the likes of Vincenzo Nibali and Nairo Quintana.
Read: Top Banana – Tour de France stage 17 – Egan Bernal
A week later, on the final showdown on the Col d’Aubisque – 180km into the 19th stage of the race, he was there shepherding four-time Tour winner Chris Froome after the Brit was dropped, before heading to the front of the group to make the pace again as Tom Dumoulin and Primož Roglič launched their assaults.
I first spoke to Bernal in 2016, shortly after his 16th place and young rider’s classification win at the Giro del Trentino, as it was previously known. Back then he was already talking about the Grand Tours – of how he’d rather make mistakes earlier than later, when he’d be contesting those three-week races. Bernal had barely raced on the road back then, but he was special. I would not have pictured progress like this, just two years later, however.
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Earlier this season – his first in the WorldTour – Bernal has already become Colombian time trial champion, won the Colombia Oro y Paz, finished second at the Tour de Romandie, and dominated the Tour of California. He has beaten riders of calibre of Nairo Quintana, Rigoberto Urán and Richie Porte. Now, at his first Grand Tour, he’s finished an incredible 15th overall – all while helping, not one but, two team leaders onto the podium.
Yet, the Colombian is not the only rider to have shown such gifts at a young age. With some of them hitting the heights their talent had promised and others not delivering on that early promise, here’s a look at how other pro cycling prodigies have fared in recent years.
Starting off with the man who has delivered most of his potential, it’s the back-to-back-to-back World Champion Sagan. The Slovak was just 20 when he joined Liquigas in 2010, immediately winning the points classifications at Paris-Nice and the Tour of California as well as two stages at each race. More success followed over the next two years, including six grand tour stages and his first Tour de France green jersey, as well as showing an aptitude for the spring classics with top five placings at Milano-Sanremo, Gent-Wevelgem, the Ronde Van Vlaanderen and the Amstel Gold Race in 2012.
Read: What makes Peter Sagan great?
As we all know, Sagan didn’t burn out or fade away after that initial explosion. He’s just persevered through injury to collect a record-equalling sixth Tour de France green jersey – to go with his 11 career stage wins. Both Flanders and Roubaix are on his palmarés too, as well as various other one-day classics and the unprecedented three World Championships victories in a row. Not bad at all.
After older brother Fränk won the 2006 Amstel Gold Race with a stunning 10km solo, he said: “you haven’t seen my little brother yet – he’s more talented.” He was right, but Andy’s first Grand Tour – the 2007 Giro – which he rode at just 21 years of age, wasn’t the place we expected to find out.
Coming into the race, an eighth place at the Tour de Romandie was his career-best result, so before heading to Italy there were no expectations that he would be battling former winners Damiano Cunego, Paolo Savoldalli, Gilberto Simoni and Stefano Garzelli, never mind eventual winner Danilo Di Luca. But after three weeks he was second overall with the best young rider’s jersey. A star was born.
Ultimately, and despite a Tour de France victory granted after Alberto Contador’s clenbuterol ban, his career didn’t quite hit the heights that May had promised. There would be two other Tour second places, in 2009 and 2011, as well as a Liège-Bastogne-Liège win, but his career would peter out as a result of various knee injuries. His last win came in 2011, before he retired in 2014 aged just 29.
The hype around Frenchman Romain Sicard began when he was a 21-year-old riding for Continental team Orbea back in 2009. His second year at the team included a 120km breakaway win at the one-day classic Subida al Naranco, as well as a Ronde de l’Isard victory at the summit finish of Plateau de Beille. His season’s conclusion was even more impressive, featuring an overall victory at the Tour de l’Avenir, where he out-time trialled Tejay Van Garderen, beating the American to the yellow jersey by a single second.
Two weeks later, Sicard started the U23 Worlds road race in Mendrisio as the favourite and duly delivered, attacking alone on the final hilly lap to claim a 27-second victory. The next year he turned pro with Euskaltel-Euskadi, and then… nothing. After eight seasons as a professional, it is his last season as an amateur that remains his most prolific. Now 30 and riding for Direct Énergie, perhaps his best pro result to date is 13th at the 2014 Vuelta a España.
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At the tender age of 18, the German announced himself to the cycling world by taking a shock win at the 2005 German National Championships while riding for Continental team AKUD Arnolds Sicherheit. Coming just a month after he started riding in the senior ranks, the victory ended a 12-year T-Mobile run at the race, and came at the expense of seasoned pros Robert Förster and Erik Zabel, who Ciolek beat to the line by three bike lengths.
With his team merging with ProContinental team Wiesenhof in the winter and 19-year-old Ciolek getting access to better races as a result, he won his first ProTour race before turning 20. Zabel and André Greipel were his victims as he won a stage at the Tour of Germany, later becoming U23 World Champion. After that came a move to T-Mobile and seven more wins.
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The German looked set to become a new sprint superstar, but rather than making the transition to the sprint-devouring animal that then-teammate Mark Cavendish became, the wins dried up. They came in handfuls each year – including a 2009 Vuelta stage – but were, more often than not, minor in nature. Ciolek’s shock 2013 rain-soaked Milano-Sanremo victory for MTN-Qhubeka would end up as his biggest success – not bad going at all – but he would retire just three seasons afterwards, aged 29.
An U23 rider for the famous (and not entirely-salubrious) DS Olivano Locatelli’s Zoccorinese-Vellutex squad, Popovych was – to put it bluntly – a monster at that level. During his two years at the Italian team he won 35 races – crazy for a non-sprinter – including the Giro della Valle d’Aosta in 2000 and 2001 plus Paris-Roubaix espoirs and the U23 Worlds road race in 2001 – the Worlds win coming after having finished runner-up the previous season.
The Ukrainian was all set to light up the pro ranks too, finishing third and fifth at the Giro in 2003 and 2004 while riding for Landbouwkrediet-Colnago squad – a Belgian team that Locatelli had joined, bringing with him a selection of Italian and Ukrainian youngsters such as Lorenzo Bernucci and Volodymyr Bileka. Still only 23 at the second of those Giri, a move to the, uh, behemoth Discovery Channel team would surely see him ascend to GT superiority, right?
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Not so much. The highlights of the remaining 11 years of his career would be a Volta a Catalunya win in 2005, and a Tour stage win in 2006. It’s still a career many would kill for, but doesn’t touch the results one might have expected after his early years.
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