When he won the 2019 Tour de France aged just 22, Egan Bernal had thc cycling world at his feet. But he looked jaded as injury ruined his 2020 title defence. Where better than Italy, he tells Procycling, where he spent his first years as a pro, to rediscover the joy of racing
Eloquence isn’t the primary attribute of a Tour de France champion, but Egan Bernal’s winner’s speech on the Champs Elysées in 2019 was a striking memory. It lasted barely 70 seconds but was delivered in four languages: as well as his native Spanish, he muddled his way through some French and English, but the most memorable and impressive part was when he flicked effortlessly to Italian: “Thanks to Italy, because
I grew up there, and I’m a bit Italian at heart,” he said.
Bernal was born in Zipaquirá in central Colombia, but, as a road racing cyclist, he was raised in Italy. A month-long stay in Sicily in 2015 rapidly led to a first professional contract, signed at the age of just 18, and the two subsequent years he spent living in Piemonte and racing for the Androni-Giocattoli team have left a lasting imprint. Together, they explain why his upcoming debut at the Giro d’Italia means so much to him.
“I have a very special feeling towards Italy,” Bernal tells Procycling. “I lived there for two years and made many great friends. Italy was where I learned how to be a cyclist and where I learned how to be an adult. Every time I race there it’s a special feeling.”
We’re talking to Bernal towards the end of Tirreno-Adriatico, where he’ll finish fourth to round out an earlyseason Italian block after podiums at Trofeo Laigueglia and Strade Bianche. Following a spell in Colombia, he’ll be back for the Tour of the Alps ahead of the Giro, and he may only believe it once he’s on the start line in Turin.
“I’ve been wanting to do the Giro for a long time, but it seems something has always got in the way,” he says. “The two years I was in Androni were the two years the team wasn’t invited. In 2019 I had my crash. Something always happens.”
It’s interesting that there’s still a hint of regret about the collarbone fracture that prevented him from riding the corsa rosa in 2019, when it was initially on his race programme. He’d signed for Team Sky in 2018 and they’d brought him on steadily - he won Colombia Oro y Paz at the start of the year, and then the Tour of California in May. At the Tour, he was one of the best climbers in the race, but early time losses meant that his energies were entirely dispensed in working for Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, first and third respectively. In 2019 the plan was to target the Giro, but his injury forced a rethink. He won the Tour de Suisse and parachuted into the Ineos Tour squad, where he hid in plain sight through most of the race, and emerged as the strongest rider in a chaotic trio of Alpine stages. Reaching the pinnacle of the sport at 22 was a huge achievement, but it still sounds more like curse than a blessing.
“I’ve been wanting to get to the Giro as soon as possible,” Bernal insists. “This year, nothing is in the way.”
“We quickly found ourselves together as a group, and it was a great friendship. We’d meet up for coffee, for dinner, or a walk and ice cream. We didn’t just talk about cycling; it was everything else. Those guys helped me a lot. They helped me to create a life there,” Bernal says.
“We often say it’s not that easy for young Colombians in Europe, but it’s complicated for anyone to leave everything behind and move to a different continent. Cycling is based in Europe so it’s us who have to adapt. At first it was tough – I was cold, alone, and I didn’t speak any Italian. But in the end, I don’t know, I adapted quite quickly. I met good people. I was lucky, I suppose.”
After an eye-catching first season, Bernal moved out of Ristorante Buasca and into an apartment with his girlfriend, who made the move from Colombia. Bernal, now proficient in Italian, invited Team Buasca over for
Colombian meals, and his new-found freedom extended to a four-wheeled purchase. He almost crashed it into Ellena’s house when he first turned up, but insisted he was licensed to drive trucks in Colombia. The next day, when Ellena called, Bernal was at Gardaland, a theme park some 300km away.
“That’s Egan. If he wants to go to Gardaland, he goes to Gardaland,” Ellena says with a chuckle.
“Even though he was new, he was a leader in all situations. In the team, he didn’t change his mind for the older riders. With his friends, it was he who decided where to go and when.”
The Colombian’s progress in 2017 was such that he was soon picked up by Team Sky. He packed his bags and moved to Andorra, then, one yellow jersey heavier, on to Monaco. He has left a hole in Buasca, but the bond remains. The Team Buasca group chat is still going strong, as is the ‘Egan Bernal Fan Club’, which was set up when he left and now counts nearly 300 members.
A delegation was dispatched to Paris to see him win the Tour and turned up at the Sky after-party brandishing pasta di meliga – Bernal’s favourite biscuits. Security turned them away, but Bernal intervened and went on to spend much of the night with them.
“I do miss Italy,” Bernal says. “Andorra was okay actually, and I like Monaco, but what I miss about Italy is my friends.”
Bernal’s excitement at his Giro debut runs much deeper than simply catching up with old friends. Italy appears to represent a sort of Promised Land for him – a beacon of happy memories and simpler times.
It seems perverse to think of him as a rider in need of a turnaround, given he has only just turned 24 and is already a Tour de France champion, but it has become clear that 2020 left him at sea. His yellow jersey defence crumbled on the Col de la Grand Colombier, and the
injury already apparent at the Dauphiné led to a diagnosis of scoliosis, a spinal condition caused by one leg being shorter than the other.
Proclamations of a ‘Bernal era’ were barely 12 months old, but this generation suddenly belonged to Tadej Pogacar, who won the Tour at an even younger age and in even more dramatic fashion. Professional cycling is moving at an ever-quickening rate but to rise to Tour de France champion at 22 then fall to yesterday’s news at 23 is something else.
This wasn’t just armchair talk, however. Speaking to the press in January, Ineos Grenadiers boss Dave Brailsford gave a somewhat cryptic but nevertheless strong suggestion that something had gone seriously awry.
“When he started out, he had a big smile, he was an aggressive and charismatic racer. It’s very important that he finds that joy of racing again,” Brailsford said.
We ask Bernal how he reacted to Brailsford’s comments.
“I think he’s referring to the way I like to compete. I like to attack, to race on the front foot. I want to feel that buzz again, to attack without fear, to race and not worry about the result.”
But where exactly did Bernal lose all of that? It’s not like 2020 was a complete write-off. When the season resumed in August he immediately won the Route d’Occitanie with a flying attack then finished second at the Tour de l’Ain behind a flying Primož Roglic. The DNFs at the Dauphiné and Tour were significant setbacks but they seemed rooted in physical rather than psychological problems.
“I don’t know exactly… I don’t even know if I lost it totally. It’s about feeling that way again,” Bernal says.
“In the end, I was a leader pretty much straight away. I was top six at Tour Down Under, then won Colombia, second at Romandie, first at California. The next year, I won Paris-Nice and Tour de Suisse, won the Tour. Then 2020 happens.”
As Bernal explains, his rise was already a steep curve but the Tour de France naturally catapulted him into the stratosphere of superstardom at just 22. He appears level-headed and emotionally intelligent, but even the coolest customer would be knocked off balance by such a life-changing moment.
“It’s not like you’re thinking about it the whole time but I guess it did affect me,” he says. “There was about a month of not quite believing it was all real, but you’re soon plunged back into the races, so you don’t really have time to take it all in.”
“In this team we always have big ambitions, but for me, personally, what I want is to feel that enjoyment again, to have that spark back. Whatever result comes of that, so be it”