Egan Bernal, champion of the Tour de France – the youngest winner of the biggest race in the world since François Faber took the victory in 1909 – is nothing short of a phenomenon. But where did this Colombian hotshot come from? How did he get so good? And where might he possibly go from here?
Bernal’s success last month will not have come as a surprise to any fans of the Amgen Tour of California. Last May, he announced himself on the grandest stage in professional bike racing by taking victory here at our race. It was not his first ever race win, but it was his first at the WorldTour level – and the one that paved the way for even greater success this year in France.
Prior to victory in California, the 22-year-old from Bogota had picked up a couple of wins in senior stage races and a victory at the legendary Tour de l’Avenir, ‘the tour of the future’, a race along the same roads as the Tour de France, exclusively for riders under 23 years of age. Legends of the sport like Miguel Indurain, Laurent Fignon and the American Tour de France-winner, Greg Lemond, all won l’Avenir as youngsters. There is simply no brighter beginning to a career in professional bike racing than a win in that race.
So just how much of a turning point was the California victory?
To beat the best under-23s in the world is one thing, but to ride away from a field of the strongest riders in the world, racing for the sport’s biggest and most professional teams – that is a demonstration of a generation-defining talent. With the week-long Amgen Tour of California GC win, Bernal proved he could lead Team Sky – now Team Ineos – to victory in the sort of high-pressure, multi-day epic battles seen in the Tour de France.
Second place in 2018, Tejay van Garderen, was beat by more than a minute after Bernal attacked in the sixth stage and soloed to his second victory of the 2018 edition.
Speaking afterwards, van Garderen said: “I was isolated on the final climb where Bernal made his move, and I fought as hard as I could. On days like this, the only thing you can do is tip your hat to your competitor. He is a young talent with a bright future, and I was simply overmatched.”
The Colombian rode across the finish line at South Lake Tahoe alone, some 1’37” ahead of van Garderen and 1’28” ahead of George Bennett the next fastest finisher. Instantly, Bernal went from potential talent of the future, to a fearsome, race-winner in the here-and-now.
What makes a phenom?
They say champions aren’t born, they’re made, but if they happen to be born at dizzying altitude, high in the Andes mountains, then that definitely helps.
Zipaquirá where Bernal was born is very near to the Colombian capital of Bogota, among the highest capital cities on the planet. It is 2,650m above sea level, which is roughly like being born at the summit of the Col du Galibier in the French Alps. At these sorts of altitudes, the air gets thin and makes it harder to breathe – especially if your body isn’t accustomed to it.
The fact that Bernal is an altitude native counts massively in his favor when it comes to racing in the mountains. This year in the Tour de France, in the highest peaks of the Alps, Bernal was one of only a handful of riders capable of attacking the other favorites – something he did at every opportunity. Stages in the high mountains of California, like the South Lake Tahoe Stage, offer Bernal the same opportunity to press home his biological advantage over other competitors.
Photo Credit: Alex Broadway // A.S.O
Temperament is also key. Few riders as young as Bernal have shown the level of composure and commitment he has in his short career. Fewer still can back it up with outrageous attacking displays of panache like Bernal has on his attacks to South Lake Tahoe and, more recently, his one-man assault on the Col d’Iseran.
How far can he go? That much remains to be seen. Bright talents have burnt out under the claustrophobic pressure of expectation before. But we might also be looking at the next member of the ‘Five Tours Club’, the elite group of just five individuals who’ve won the Tour de France five times. Having seen what the kid can do on our home roads, we certainly wouldn’t bet against him.
Article written by Tom Owen