When Egan Bernal won the 2019 Tour de France, the sport proclaimed the start of a new era. At 22-years-old, the Colombian was the youngest winner this side of the Second World War.
But things didn’t pan out that way. By 2020 there was a new kid on the block, Tadej Pogačar who at 21 was 616 days younger than Bernal when he stood atop the podium in Paris. The defending champion, beset by back problems, abandoned after stage 16, nearly 20 minutes down.
Had we all been presumptuous? Over-enthusiastic? Maybe we’d got it wrong about Egan Bernal.
He had certainly won the Tour de France without riding much like a Tour contender. It was a quiet race for Bernal until the Alps, where he rode into contention over the Col du Galibier and took the yellow jersey on a day when landslides on the Col de l’Iseran forced the cancellation of the stage (19).
We’ll never know if he would have gone on to win emphatically at Tignes that day, but the times for the stage were taken at the top of the Iseran, Bernal was in yellow, and there remained just one 60km stage to Val Thorens. He and Thomas finished together and just like that, Bernal was Tour champ without a Grand Tour stage win.
Fast forward to the 2021 Giro d’Italia and it’s a different story. The race has confirmed what we believed about Bernal when he won the Tour two years ago and what Ineos knew when they signed ‘the monster’ from Androni Giocattoli in 2018. The Colombian, now 24, entered the Giro as an unknown quantity. He left it as the confirmed Grand Tour sensation we thought he was. To win the Giro and the Tour before the age of 25 puts him in illustrious company. Nobody since Eddy Merckx has done that.
Bernal looked a different rider to the one who won the 2019 Tour. He picked off chunks of time from his rivals at the first opportunities on stage 4 to Sestola and stage 6 to Ascoli Piceno. By the time the first true mountain test came around on stage 9, the gravel finish at Campo Felice, another late surge to the line brought him the stage win and the race lead.
Bernal rode strongly and assertively. He turned what some riders would see as pitfalls – the strade bianche on stage 11 and the dismal Dolomites weather on stage 16 – into weapons. Bernal didn’t crash and he didn’t really have any bad days, something which can’t be said for Simon Yates, João Almeida, Remco Evenepoel, George Bennett or Dan Martin. Winning in the pink jersey alone in Cortina d’Ampezzo was a big confidence boost for a rider whose recent career had been full of doubt.
Speaking at the end of the Giro, Bernal explained the post-Tour blues that had weighed heavily on his young shoulders last year. “After the Tour [in 2019], it wasn’t the same anymore,” he said. “I had my back problem, I couldn’t do what I wanted. My doubts started again, about being back on this level, having the willpower to win or not.”
By the time the final week came around and the fatigue of his earlier efforts began to show, Bernal rode shrewdly. When cracks appeared in his hitherto flawless armour on stage 17 to Sega di Ala he limited his losses and deployed his team.
Dani Martínez was a key lieutenant by his side in the final week but Bernal still had to do the pedalling. Who clocked the fastest time on the final ascent of the race, Alpe Motta? He did.
Bernal’s Giro was a total Grand Tour performance. There was no one stage that won him the race — he accrued time effectively in attack and spent it well in defence. In the final week he looked understandably knackered, but he never looked off the ball.
Looking ahead, it’s hard to pinpoint any particular weaknesses to Bernal’s arsenal. He’s not as strong a time-trialist as Primož Roglič or Geraint Thomas. He’s never come head-to-head on a level playing field with Tadej Pogačar, either, a contest that we now eagerly await.
Who would win that one is a question for another time. For now at least we know that in what increasingly looks like becoming a golden era for Grand Tour cycling, Egan Bernal is back in the game.