Egan Bernal, possibly Colombia’s most exciting climbing sensation since Nairo Quintana, went to the Tour de France to learn, and ended up teaching.
Imagine the scene on the Team Sky bus: ‘Ok, Bernal. You’re going to the Tour. To learn!’, says Dave Brailsford. ‘Listo. To learn”, the excited young prodigy from Zipaquira would no doubt have answered.
Bernal was selected for Sky’s eight-man team for the most important stage race in cycling, the Tour de France. Part of the reason was to lessen the weight of the huge expectations for Bernal as he entered his maiden Grand Tour in a purely domestique role.
The learning started in earnest at the very first stage, where he lost more than a minute. However, he managed to stay with the best on all the following days until the dreaded ‘pave’ on stage 9. One concentration lapse and Bernal rode himself into a team car, which had stopped suddenly in front of him. With a heavily bruised and swollen thumb, he tried to limit his losses and ended the day 16 min behind the winners. It also meant he was out of the picture for the white jersey (best young rider) competition.
But then came the mountains. And it wasn’t Bernal learning; it was Bernal teaching others how to climb. “Bernal set an asphyxiating rhythm” were Mikel Landa’s words after he lost time on the Alpe d’Huez.
He looked so fresh, so at ease on climbs. Team captain Froome managed to save his final podium position probably only thanks to the help of Bernal, as he struggled on stage 17.
And then we had what seems to be the Achilles heel for most “escarabajos,” a time trial. It’s rather difficult to read too much into Bernal’s two minute loss and only time will tell if he can improve in this discipline. Luckily, Team Sky is the best possible environment to learn the trade with elite time trialists all around him.
So it’s all rosy for Bernal, isn’t it? But then, what a comfortable position the rider had in the Tour. Any drawback quickly forgotten as a part of learning curve, anything good and he’s talked up. Maturely enough, though, Bernal recognised his cozy position:
I’m not riding for the general classification, so it’s less stress. For Nairo it’s heavy. If he loses time, it’s hard.
It’s difficult to avoid comparison between the two. We shouldn’t forget our excitement with Nairo, as in his maiden Tour he got second overall, white jersey plus a stage win. I remember experts predicting Quintana to become the first Colombian Tour winner. Something that now looks less and less likely.
So let’s enjoy the thrill of newly-found excitement but caution is advised before calling Bernal a potential future Tour winner.