By Peter Cossins published
While there was little doubt that Colombian cycling is very much on the up again, the first edition of the Colombia Oro y Paz stage race underlined not only the passion for the sport in the Latin American country, but also the depth of talent it boasts.
Colombia’s well-established names were very much to the fore, Rigoberto Urán and Fernando Gaviria among those who won stages.
But all were outshone by race winner Egan Bernal, who turned 21 in January. Already sixth at the Tour Down Under and winner of the Colombian time trial title ahead of EF Education First-Drapac’s Daniel Martínez, another precociously talented 21-year-old Colombian, Bernal has enjoyed an astonishing debut month in Team Sky colours.
His latest success on home roads supports the widespread belief that he will soon become a Grand Tour contender, perhaps even as soon as this season, when he is slated to ride the Vuelta a España.
Bernal’s talent was first noticed by Italian agent and ex-Mapei pro Paolo Alberati, who was intrigued by the Colombian’s back-to-back podium finishes in the World Junior Mountain Bike Championships.
Alberati was even more so when he saw Bernal’s lab test results, which revealed an athlete with huge physiological ability – his VO2 max is reported to be close to 90ml/kg, just below the figure recorded by three-time Tour winner Greg LeMond.
Alberati tipped off Italian DS Gianni Savio to the young Colombian. "But he’s just a kid," Savio said of the then 18-year-old Bernal. "But wait till you see his test results," Alberati responded. When he did so, Savio moved swiftly to sign Bernal to a four-year contract.
Renowned for finding and nurturing Latin American riders, Savio has said that his primary concern was to bring Bernal through steadily. In 2016, his first European season, Bernal raced 47 days, adapting very quickly and successfully to the switch from mountain biking to road. By his second season, Bernal was being lined up for a Grand Tour debut at the Giro d’Italia.
Unfortunately, Savio’s Androni team failed to secure a wild card invite to the Giro and the wily DS realised his hopes of retaining Bernal beyond the 2017 season disappeared with it.
Over subsequent months, Savio spoke widely about the need for a transfer system to reward teams such as his that spot and bring through talent, while at the same time negotiating Bernal’s future with WorldTour squads.
There was plenty of reason for them to be interested even before Bernal breezed to victory in the Tour de l’Avenir at the head of an extremely powerful Colombian team last September.
Runner-up Bjorg Lambrecht, who is now with Lotto-Soudal, described Bernal as being in a class of his own. No sooner had that title been claimed than Sky confirmed one of the worst-kept secrets in the sport by announcing Bernal’s arrival, with Androni reported to have received ‘significant compensation’ as part of the deal.
Bernal, dubbed ‘The Eagle of Zipaquirá' after the town 50km from Bogotá that is renowned for its salt mines and underground Salt Cathedral where the racer’s father once worked as a caretaker, appears well equipped to adapt to the demands of three-week races.
Not only does he appear to have the physiological attributes to cope, but all who have worked with him insist he is always ready to listen and quick to learn.
It speak volumes that Sky, widely criticised in the past for their failure to develop young talent, have got right behind Bernal from the off, backing him with experienced riders in Australia and Colombia.
Signed along with Pavel Sivakov, Chris Lawless and Kristoffer Halvorsen to be the British team’s next generation of stage racing leaders, Bernal is due to race either Paris-Nice or Tirreno-Adriatico on his return to Europe, followed by the Volta a Catalunya.
He is also on Sky’s long list for the Vuelta, where at the very least he will offer strong support in the mountains. But at his current rate of progress, Bernal may end up doing far more than that…
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