Egan Bernal emerges from the curtains at the foot of the stairs from the Ineos Grenadiers team bus.

Egan Bernal’s path back to glory may not be through France

He’s a Tour de France winner, but the Colombian might be better off targeting the Vuelta a España as he continues his climb back to form.

Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) emerges from the team bus before stage 4 of the 2024 Tour de Romandie. Photo: © Cor Vos

Kit Nicholson
by Kit Nicholson 15.06.2024 Photography by
Cor Vos
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Egan Bernal was just getting started when he crashed into that bus. If not his opening act, then he was early in the second, but you get the impression the inciting incident hadn’t even arrived yet, not until that fateful day out training on the time trial bike.

He had a great deal to come back from: numerous broken bones, multiple surgeries including to his spine, and endless physical therapy. For a long time, it would have been an extraordinary achievement just to return to the peloton, let alone getting anywhere close to where he was used to and where he wanted to be.

And while Bernal and his family were put through torture for days, weeks, months, bike racing lost a star.

Only now are we learning for sure that it was but a temporary absence from the top. Based on recent form, it’s a pretty safe bet that Egan Bernal will win again. Maybe (probably) not a Grand Tour any time soon, but he’s regained entry to a pretty exclusive GC members club.

Egan Bernal leads a five-rider favourites group at the Tour de Romandie, teammate Carlos Rodríguez on his wheel.
Bernal has returned to the pointy end of bike races, in his element in the mountains.

Two years and two months after sustaining potentially life-threatening injuries, Bernal climbed to his first WorldTour-level GC podium since his renaissance, and the trend has continued in the three months since then, consistently performing in his favoured terrain both as a self-motivated GC hopeful and a super-domestique for others – he was instrumental in Carlos Rodríguez’s debut GC title at the Tour de Romandie, the Colombia finishing top 10 himself while setting up his young teammate.

The long way back

When Bernal won the Tour de France in 2019, he was just 22 years old, the first of the young whippersnappers to top the GC podium of a Grand Tour in the modern era. He’s still a young man at 27 years of age, making him 18 months older than Tadej Pogačar (the Slovenian turned 22 the day after his first Tour victory), and a mere month younger than Jonas Vingegaard, the two best general classification riders in men’s cycling by quite a margin. Never mind the elder statesmen like Primož Roglič (34) and Geraint Thomas (38).

Lucky for Bernal, he’s yet to age out of GC contention, even having had to literally learn to walk again, and since his return to racing just eight months after his crash, he’s been on a relatively steady rise back to something that is beginning to resemble the Tour and Giro winner he used to be. And while his eighth overall at the 2023 Tour de Romandie represented a tantalising glimpse into a future many had given up on, it’s this 2024 season in which he’s not only improved further, but regained that essential quality of a top stage racer: consistency.

Fifth at the Tour Colombia and third at O Gran Camiño (won by Vingegaard) marked a steady start and a welcome return to a GC podium for Bernal, but it was in the WorldTour races to come where he began to draw real attention for his consistency perhaps more than anything else. Seventh at Paris-Nice, third at the Volta a Catalunya, 10th in Romandie while working for a teammate, and a podium finisher in waiting at the ongoing Tour de Suisse … Bernal can lay claim to being a bonafide GC rider once again.

Egan Bernal waves to fans before the start of stage 7 of the 2024 Tour de Suisse.
Welcome back, Egan.

The Tour, the Vuelta, or both?

So what’s next? He completed two Grand Tours in 2023: the Tour de France where he helped Rodríguez to fifth; and the Vuelta a España, the one Grand Tour he’s yet to win, where his personal highlight was a top-10 finish from the breakaway on the arduous 18th stage.

As the team continues to adjust to the unfamiliar position of underdog, the Ineos Grenadiers seem yet to have settled on their approach to the Tour, a race they dominated for most of the 2010s. Carlos Rodríguez is sure to be at the start in Tuscany having only got better since his stage win and top-five finish last year, while Tom Pidcock remains an unknown quantity despite his professed control over his own destiny, especially after repeated mountain stages. Then you have Bernal, who seems to be a solid bet to do something exciting in the near future.

But what if that weren’t at the Tour?

Despite being on the provisional start list and having stirred up personal interest as recently as last month, Bernal said last week that he’s not sure he’ll even be at the Tour, while also hinting at how his goals might evolve should he line up with his teammates in Florence.

“It depends on if I go or not, but if I participate in the Tour, I’d be keen to go for the overall and finish as high up the ranking as possible,” the Colombian told L’Équipe. “But if in the first couple of stages I lose five or six minutes, then I’ll recalibrate my objectives.”

As the interview went on, it seemed he was just awaiting final confirmation rather than evaluating his options – he said of the Tour de Suisse that “the main objective is to reach the start of the Tour in the best form possible” – but three weeks in France are perhaps not his best bet for success, not with the competition expected and the multiple leaders within his team; maybe he should be going all in for the Vuelta and arrive fresh compared to his rivals doing both.

My next goal is the Vuelta.

Bernal, to the Táchalò podcast over the winter

Only seven riders in history have managed the career Grand Tour triple: Jacques Anquetil, Felice Gimondi, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault, Alberto Contador, Vincenzo Nibali and Chris Froome. With both Pogačar and Vingegaard having now shot down any hope of a rematch in Spain, and with only 34 kilometres of time trialing compared to the Tour’s 60, Bernal could not ask for a much better proposition.

He could do both, of course, follow the proven route of Roglič, Froome, Nairo Quintana, and reigning Vuelta champion Sepp Kuss (who actually did all three GTs in 2023), all of whom won the Vuelta in the last decade after racing and performing at a high level in the Tour. That’s not to mention the extra week of recovery between the French and Spanish Grand Tours this year to make way for the Paris Olympics – though Bernal has just been selected to represent Colombia in the road race so he wouldn’t be able to avoid all risk. But a super-domestique role to build towards an all-in podium bid at the Vuelta could make sense for the now-seasoned pro.

What might get in the way then are his team’s objectives for the remainder of the season. The Tour is the biggest race of the year and while anything short of the yellow jersey is apparently a disappointment in the eyes of Ineos management, they’re going to want to take their best possible squad to compete for stages and as high a GC finish as possible, with whichever rider proves best on the road. Bernal will almost certainly be there, but as a domestique or leader? i.e. targeting the Vuelta or – well – taking it “day by day” in France?

The Ineos Grenadiers will throw everything at the Tour and see what sticks, but it’s the Vuelta where something special could be done. And what a story that would be.

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