Tour champion Bernal makes big impression on Brailsford
Sir Dave Brailsford believes Egan Bernal is the best rider he has ever worked with at his age.
When the 22-year-old crossed the finish line in Paris on Sunday, Bernal became the youngest winner of the Tour de France in over a century.
He stood on the top step of the podium in only his second Tour, only his second Grand Tour, having ridden an intelligent three-week race which belied his tender years.
Now, like everyone else, Ineos team principal Brailsford is wondering how much more there might be to come.
“Like for like at his age, he’s pretty exceptional compared to everybody else,” he said.
Brailsford was hoping to find the next Chris Froome when he paid Gianni Savio’s pro-continental team Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec £250,000 to buy out Bernal’s contract at the end of 2017.
The youngster had jumped off a mountain bike and gone straight on to the road with the Italian team, skipping the junior level, and delivering victories in prestigious races like the Tour de l’Avenir.
At 5ft 9in and 60 kilograms, Bernal fits the profile of a pure climber, but his slight frame hides a huge engine – comfortable in a time trial and not giving anything away on the flat.
Laboratory tests conducted in 2015 found Bernal has a VO2 max – a measure of the body’s maximum energy consumption – of 88.8. The same year, Froome underwent tests which found a VO2 max of 84.6, equivalent to 88.2 at his Tour weight.
It was clear Bernal had the full package as a cyclist.
“I thought: mountain bike background, good bike handler, tall, powerful on the flats, team time trial, develop his individual time trial over the years and he can climb like stink,” Brailsford said.
“All-round, when we are looking for the next generation to push Chris and Geraint, he was the obvious choice.”
But having the physical attributes is only half the package in the Tour de France.
The mental strength to manage efforts and gauge attacks is key, as is the maturity needed to handle the will of a passionate nation like Colombia.
Bernal grew up fast at home in Zipaquira. Born into relative poverty, he first learned to ride a bike on a hand-me-down.
When his parents split up, neither could afford to move out of the family home and so they lived in different rooms, with the young Egan becoming the mediator of the household.
Bernal later used the money from his first contract to buy his mother a flat, and now both his parents are part of his back-up team – his mother working on his nutrition while his dad, a former security guard, joins him on training rides on a scooter while working as his mechanic.
“Once you understand about his family and how he’s grown up and the way he’s taken responsibility for his family then you realise this isn’t your normal young man,” Brailsford said.
Brailsford himself got a sense of that after naming Bernal in last year’s Tour team, where he was to ride in support of Froome and Thomas.
Bernal was excited by the opportunity but felt Brailsford had not been clear to him when explaining what his role would be.
“When we arrived at the start he came to see me and said, ‘Can we go for a walk? I want to talk to you’,” Brailsford said.
“I was a bit (surprised) but, ‘OK’. We went for a walk and he gave me a big long lecture about next time, if I want him to be the third rider then the way I tell him should be a bit different.
“’You should do this, that and the other’. I was like, ‘Wow’. ‘Just be honest with me, be clear, let’s have absolute respect between us’.
“Maybe it’s language, assumptions we had made but there’s that knock on the door and I was like, ‘Wow, OK, fair play…’”
Bernal went on to serve both Thomas and Froome brilliantly in that Tour while somehow finishing 15th himself.
Brailsford, realising what he had on his hands, persuaded James Murdoch to sign off on a five-year deal.
It was extremely unusual in cycling but then so is Bernal’s talent.
Now he is a Tour winner, the main challenge may be managing expectations.
“Who knows how he will develop,” Brailsford said. “He might be at the top of his curve now. He might progress, we don’t know. But there are a lot of areas he can improve, that’s for sure, not just in pure power terms, a lot of different areas.
“Honestly I don’t think he knows what’s hit him yet.”