Team Sky have won eight Grand Tours with three different riders since 2012, and now Colombian climbing prodigy Egan Bernal is poised to be the latest leader on the team’s never-ending podium quest. In just his second year with the British outfit, 22-year-old Bernal has seized the opportunity and accepted responsibility for leading the world’s top Grand Tour team at the 2019 Giro d’Italia.
Although his ascent through the team’s ranks seems quick, Bernal has been pointed towards this day since he pulled on Team Sky’s colours for the first time at last year’s Tour Down Under, where he was given leadership in his first race with the team. He finished sixth overall in Australia, before flying home home to Colombia and winning the national time trial title and the inaugural Colombia Oro y Paz.
After finishing second at the Tour de Romandie and winning the Tour of California, he was fast-tracked into a Tour de France debut, and he shone in helping Geraint Thomas to overall victory and finishing 15th himself. The second half of the season was complicated by a crash at the Clasica San Sebastián that left him in hospital for several days but he returned to finish 12th at Il Lombardia.
Bernal’s second season with Team Sky has begun at a much slower pace. He skipped the trip to Australia this year and remained at home in Colombia, where he hosted Chris Froome and teammates Tao Geoghegan Hart and Gianni Moscon at an informal training camp ahead of the Tour Colombia 2.1.
Things went to plan for Team Sky in Colombia until the decisive fifth stage, when a dangerous breakaway escaped that included multiple GC threats, including eventual overall winner Miguel Angel Lopez (Astana). Fellow young Colombian Ivan Sosa made it into the move for Team Sky, but the team’s failure to pull back the breakaway by the finish cost Bernal 42 seconds. Team Sky sports director Oli Cookson explained that the race, with the guidance of four-time Tour de France champion Froome, was a learning experience for Bernal and his young teammates, and he will surely store that stage in his memory banks when dangerous moves go in the future.
On the final day, Bernal turned loyal teammate and super domestique, falling back to help Sosa on the summit finish to Alto las Palmas. But López could not be beaten, and the Sky duo had to settle for second and fourth overall.
During the Colombia 2.1 race – after both Thomas and Team Sky principal Dave Brailsford knocked down persistent rumours that Thomas would race the Giro d’Italia – Cyclingnews sat down with Bernal to talk about the season ahead.
Bernal is quickly learning the responsibility of leadership at Team Sky (Getty Images)
Cyclingnews:The team has put a lot of faith in you with the Giro d’Italia leadership. Does that make you nervous or excited?
Bernal: I don’t like to have pressure or to be nervous. I don’t think that makes any sense. I’m really happy, to be honest, to be going to the Giro, to be the leader and to have the team behind me in my first Grand Tour [the Giro will be Bernal’s first Grand Tour riding for his own GC result – ed.], so I don’t want to go into this Grand Tour with nerves or with pressure. I just want have a good ride.
CN:What has the team told you about expectations? Have they just told you to learn or are they expecting something big?
Bernal: No, they’re just thinking about me learning, but for sure it’s Team Sky, so we’ll go for the GC also. But if we don’t win, in any case I’m 22 years and this is the Giro d’Italia. It’s one of the three most important races in the world. So I think this is a little bit twofold: we’ll go to learn, to learn a lot about how to be a leader, how to be fighting for 21 days in one race, and, also, if we can stay in good position for the GC, of course we’ll try.
CN:What are your first impressions of the Giro d’Italia route?
Bernal: I really like it. I am not the best time trial guy, but I really like the time trial stages. I don’t know why because normally I lose time in the time trials, but I do like them, and this Giro has three good time trials. Also, there is a lot of climbing, and this is good for me. The climbs in Italy are really, really hard, so I think we will have time to do something for the GC. The Giro is a race where anything can happen, so you need to be at the front for the whole race, and maybe sometimes in the final you can lose 10 seconds or 15 seconds because you’re behind a gap, so you need to be at the front fighting for position.
CN:Of all the declared Giro d’Italia rivals, who do you fear the most?
Bernal: Boy, I don’t know. Maybe Tom Dumoulin, for sure. He’ll gain a lot of time in the time trials. But it’s also good if you have these big names at the Giro – a lot of big names – because for sure the race will be more difficult for everyone. Maybe one day there’ll be an attack from Vincenzo Nibali, and then Alejandro Valverde, and then Tom Dumoulin, and then maybe Simon Yates and me. The race will be really hard at the end. For me, it’s better to have these big names, because if there are big names there will be less pressure on me.
CN:Did you imagine last year when you signed with Team Sky that you’d be in the position you’re in now going to the Giro d’Italia as team leader?
Bernal: No, of course not. It was impressive for me when I went to the Tour Down Under [in 2018] and was the leader. It was my first race and I was already the leader. I thought, ‘Oh no – it’s maybe too much for me.’ And then I came here and I won the Tour Colombia [the 2018 Colombia Oro y Paz – ed.], then at Catalunya I was like the second leader. I didn’t expect it, and now this year – after I finished the Tour and I signed a new contract and everything – even though I didn’t ask, the team said, ‘How about this year being the leader for the Giro?’ I was, like, ‘OK. Good. Good.’ But for sure I never expected it.
Tour Colombia fans go wild for Bernal near the end of the final stage (Getty Images)
CN:There’s been a lot of talk lately about a Colombian WorldTour team, and your team has been linked to some of those rumours. Colombia obviously has the riders for a WorldTour team. Do you think Colombia is ready to put a team in the WorldTour?
Bernal: I don’t know if Colombia is ready, but I think it would be really nice for us. It would be special to have a WorldTour team – even if I wasn’t in it – for the all the Colombian people. We really like cycling, and now with Nairo Quintana, Rigo Uran, Esteban Chaves, Fernando Gaviria, and with me now, and Sosa and Lopez, the fans are really growing and could support a WorldTour team. It would be nice, but I don’t know if it’s possible.
CN:What kind of calendar will you have after the Giro? Do you have a plan for the second half of the season?
Bernal: No, no. I just know that I’ll do the Giro d’Italia. I don’t know if I’ll do Paris-Nice or Catalunya. I just want to finish this race [Colombia] and then we’ll see which races we’ll do. If I finish this race in good condition, maybe I’ll wait until Catalunya and won’t do Paris-Nice.
But I am just thinking about the Giro now. After the Giro, we’ll have a lot of time to think about which other races I’ll do.
CN:Is the Vuelta an option?
Bernal: The Vuelta could be an option. I prefer to not think about it, though. I have enough to think about with just focusing on the Giro.