When Egan Bernal became the youngest Tour de France winner in over a century, there was a near-universal declaration of him being the Grand Tour star of his generation who would now rule the sport. Less voiced was the concern in some quarters about how an early twenty-something from a cycling-mad nation would deal with the pressure, fame and money.
The answer, almost two summers on, is that the attention did negatively affect him. “Winning the Tour was an emotional hit, an ego hit, a populistic hit, a very strong hit. In Colombia, we call it a culatazo, a really strong and hard blow,” Pablo Mazuera, Bernal’s mentor who discovered his racing talents aged 12, tells Cycling Weekly. “To have this responsibility, to be so young, it must have been very complicated to even just train, mentally and physically.”
As the quiet, reserved farm boy flung open the window to his private life – even appearing on Colombia’s most popular late-night chat show – his ability to maintain his high standard on the bike was hindered by a developing back problem that became so persistent and debilitating that it resulted in him having to abandon his defense of the Tour last year.
Another trusted figure, Gianni Savio, who signed him for AndroniGiocattoli-Sidermic in 2016, tells CW: “That day before he abandoned, I saw from his facial expression that he was suffering too much. That wasn’t the Egan I recognised.”
And that, in our society where stars are made in an instant and rapidly replaced in the public eye, was supposedly that. Bernal, now 24, had been overtaken by Tadej PogaÄar as the young sensation. Everyone downgraded their lofty expectations.
But with strong – if not spectacular – performances in early spring, most notably third at both Strade Bianche and the Tour de La Provence, Bernal heads into his first Giro d’Italia as a favorite. Except for no one, least of all those who know him best, can predict what type of Bernal will show up.
“In this moment, there are no expectations of Egan,” Mazuera adds. “People know he’s going to the Giro, but no one is commenting about him winning because it’s a mystery how exactly he is.
“He is the international favourite but here in Colombia I haven’t seen or heard the same level of fanaticism that we saw before the Tour last year when people just knew Egan was going to win again. They now prefer to think he could, but they’re waiting and hoping to see. People are very calm.”
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