THE EGAN OF THE CANAVESE
Before Ineos, Egan Bernal spent two seasons with the ProConti Androni team. Procycling looks back at his two years in Italy
Bernal’s Giro debut can be seen as a refuge of sorts, because Italy has already been that for him in the past. Colombia idolises its sport stars and when Bernal became its first Tour champion, he barely had room to breathe. He needed a police escort to go to the supermarket, and training was useless because he could barely pedal a kilometre without being stopped for selfies.
After a while, he picked up the phone and called Ellena. “Giovanni, can I come and stay with you?” he asked.
“It was before the autumn classics. He came and stayed for a week,” Ellena says. “He saw the old gang again, and he took me out to dinner and gave me a yellow jersey, which was a special moment.”
It’s telling that Bernal called Ellena, rather than Brailsford. Ineos surely would have been able to accommodate their Tour champion, but he opted to reach out to the director of a different team. They even turned up at the Giro della Toscana in the same car.
“I think he needed to return to the old way,” Ellena says. “Not the old team, but the old country, the old people, the old training. Maybe it was something to take away the glory of the Tour de France and be the old Egan again, before all of that.”
Bernal finished second in the Giro della Toscana and won Gran Piemonte on the Oropa climb before ending 2019 with a podium at Il Lombardia. That winter, he hinted at riding the Giro in 2020 but a combination of the time trial-heavy route and his status as Tour champion made France the only realistic destination.
This time around, the route was more favourable, and the Giro was a big target anyway. “I don’t want to fall into the trap of doing the Tour every year, and falling into the same pattern every season,” Bernal says. “The Tour is the Tour, but the Giro also exists, the Vuelta also exists. There are the Italian classics, Strade Bianche. There’s not only Paris Nice; there’s Tirreno-Adriatico. I need that variety, and to race wherever motivates me, where it comes from the heart – like the Giro.”
Bernal will line up in Turin on May
8 in a strong field that includes a host of big-name climbers put off by the Tour’s emphasis on time trialling. He’ll also be part of a strong Ineos squad, and it was interesting that Brailsford namechecked Pavel Sivakov and Daniel Martínez when discussing Ineos’s distribution of leaders across the three grand tours.
Bernal’s palmarès precede him, but he wants to go to Italy unburdened.
“I don’t know what the ambition is. I don’t want to put a number on it. I just want to enjoy it,” he says. “I haven’t had any specific ambition going into these past races either. At Strade Bianche, I didn’t say I wanted to make the podium. At Tirreno, I didn’t say I want this, I want that. Obviously 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.”
Part of that attitude has to do with Bernal’s back. Even if the early signs this season have been encouraging, he insists it’s an ongoing – perhaps career-long – problem to be managed.
“I’m not fully recovered,” he says. “It’s been okay but I’ve still had pain at certain points. We don’t know how the body will respond in a three-week race. In the Giro we might end up doing a stage that’s about as hard as Strade Bianche, and then have to go out and do a big mountain stage the next day. I want to be optimistic, but I just don’t know.”
The Giro will end in Milan on May 30, but you sense that for Bernal, who has yearned for this for so long and perhaps needs it now more than ever, the most meaningful destination is the start line.
Ride your bike north out of Turin, and follow the signs for the Lanzo and Aosta valleys. In an hour or so you’ll find yourself in the Canavese, an aggregation of market towns and villages whose locals speak an indecipherable dialect and whose capital is a UNESCO World Heritage town. Ivrea is famous for having been home to Olivetti, but there’s much more to the Canavese than that. As a people, the Canavesani are famously obdurate, and famously taciturn. That’s probably because their climate and geology are famously implacable, and it’s no coincidence that the area was once one of Italian cycling’s most fertile breeding grounds. Between them, the
Canavesani Giovanni Brunero, Giuseppe Enrici and Franco Balmamion accounted for six Giro d’Italia victories, but it’s fair to say none of them were interested in showing off. Balmamion was known as ‘The Silent Champion’ for a reason, and he was the Canavese archetype.
Giovanni Ellena is 54, and he’s Canavesano to his marrow. He’s a sports director with Gianni Savio’s Androni, but where Savio is all theatre and soundbite, Ellena is considered, dutiful, and sober. When, therefore, the team needed a keeper for a Colombian teenager in the autumn of 2015, he was a natural choice.
“I live in Pertusio, a small village,” Ellena says. “We decided it made sense for Egan to be close by. There are big mountains on the doorstep, and plenty of variety. But we were mindful of the fact that he was very young and very alone. I was the oldest DS, my family life is as settled as it can be with this job, and I speak Spanish. There were no pretensions about my becoming a ‘father figure’, but it was natural that he’d need a bit of looking after. It’s a long way from Colombia to Piedmont, in just about every sense.”
Ellena set about looking for a place, and took a call from a local cycling friend. Vladimir Chiuminatto comes from San Colombo Belmonte, a tiny outcrop of some 300 souls. It’s home to the Buasca, famous for local ingredients and traditional Piedmontese dishes.
The owners were developing new lodgings, and they would become Bernal’s European home away from home. In time he and his partner would relocate to Cuorgnè, a pretty little market town nearby, but ‘Il Buasca’ continues to host a conveyor belt of aspirant South Americans. Chiuminatto and co have adopted them as their own, and the locals are proud to have them. Though Egan Bernal isn’t for one minute Italian, there’s a significant part of him which is Canavesano.
Ellena will never forget Bernal’s first outing. “We always do the baseline stuff first, just to get a handle on where we’re starting from,” he says. “We had Franco Pellizotti with us, and we were over in Padua with him. After that first test he said, ‘Well either he’s taking the piss or he’s a Tour de France winner.’ He went up that thing like nothing on Earth.”
Pellizotti was polka-dot jersey at the Tour de France, which suggests he knows a thing or two about climbing.
Those tests, however, are little more than a base camp. Cycling is a hard sport, and God-given talent is just one of its prerequisites. History is awash with precocious expats who lacked the rigour, fortitude or fortune to become champions. Some can’t cope with the workload, others get homesick and some just aren’t sufficiently motivated. Ellena knew that Bernal was a generational talent, but he’s been in cycling a long time. He’s seen a lot fall by the wayside, and he admits that he found the responsibility daunting initially: “In effect I found myself with this jewel. I was the one charged with transforming him into a rider, or at least with giving him the best chance of becoming one. I found that disarming, because I didn’t feel qualified. There’s a lot that can go wrong, and there are a lot of moving parts. You can’t control all of them, and that was my worry.”
It needn’t have been. Bernal, he says, had “a 40-year-old head on 19-year-old shoulders”, and he soon developed a tight group of friends and training partners. Bernal was in Europe to become the best cyclist he could be. Case in point, Ellena is at pains to point out that the two of them aren’t ‘friends’ in the traditional sense. For all that Bernal speaks English, Italian and a sprinkling of Piedmontese, he and Ellena still communicate in Spanish. It’s how they started out, but also a marker.
“Team Buasca started a WhatsApp group, and he asked if I wanted to be in it. I said I didn’t, because ours needed to be a professional relationship. Of course you develop a big emotional investment as well as a professional one. However it was right, and I think we both knew it was right.”
One instance in particular was instructive. Bernal was down to ride the Tour of Portugal, and then spend a few days in Colombia. But he was tired,
“Pellizotti said after that test, ‘ Well either he’s taking the piss or he’s a Tour de France winner’ He went up that thing like nothing on Earth” - Giovanni Ellena
so Androni decided not to send him to Portugal. The Tour de l’Avenir was coming up, and it was important he arrived there fresh. He was supposed to go home after Portugal, so they’d booked him a flight from Lisbon to Bogotá. It made sense for him to be on that flight, so they booked him one from Milan to Lisbon the preceding day.
“The idea was that he’d spend the night in Lisbon, and then I’d put him on the flight to Bogotá,” says Ellena. “You’d expect that a young man like him would want to go out and explore Lisbon, but he didn’t. We ate dinner in the hotel, and spent our time talking about cycling.”
The rest is history. Androni was only ever going to be a means to an end, both for Bernal and for Savio. The big prize was always the WorldTour and the Tour de France. Next, it seems, is a serious tilt at the Giro. Bernal’s still not quite back to his best, but Ellena reckons he’ll be close when they hit the Dolomites.
“He’s at Ineos. That’s no coincidence. He has an ‘Anglo-Saxon’ mentality, and I mean that as a compliment. He’s very thorough, nothing is left to chance, and he analyses everything. In a race like the Giro, where you’re trying to eliminate happenstance, that helps a lot.”
It’s been 59 years since a Canavesano won the Giro, and the consensus seems to be that’s 58 too many. Egan Bernal may be a Colombian cyclist riding for a British team, but he’s categorically one of their own. The long wait may finally come to an end.