So far, Egan Bernal has been the best Latin American athlete of 2019. His impressive victory in the last edition of the Tour de France, the first for a Colombian in history, has propelled this athlete, born in Bogotá 22 years ago, to an elite position in world sport.
Egan Bernal not only achieved a historic triumph but also an undeniable one by becoming the youngest athlete to win the most important cycling race in the world.
The son of a very humble family with a cycling tradition on his paternal side, Bernal’s stamina was forged in the devilish landscape of Zipaquirá, where he grew up. This is where we the first contrasts naturally emerging with respect to the traditional Colombian school that broke into the 1980s, which was largely shaped in the violent Andean plateau.
Egan Bernal is the direct heir of such mythical figures as Lucho Herrera, Fabio Parra, Santiago Botero, and at the same time the youngest member of a generation of a more broad spectrum that should include Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán.
Until recently, these were the only two Colombians to have had a real shot at achieving a victory at the Tour, but they lacked the quality, the character and the good fortune that Bernal had in the last edition of the French tour.
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Egan Bernal, a Different Kind of Cyclist
Unlike all the others, Bernal is not only an excellent climber. He is also a good cyclist on all terrains, he is consistent and he is complete. The unforgettable escarabajos that made Colombian cycling world famous in the 1980s, who competed for mythical teams, such as Café de Colombia or Postobón, were invincible when the roads got steep.
But when the race hit the long flat stages, the frantic formations or the race against the clock, their power faded and they seriously fell behind. They lost momentum in the endless flat roads of the central French region or would be ambushed by Central European teams, who would use countless tactics in the battle to get ahead.
Colombians also fared badly with the European winter and their relationship with the wind was intense. They definitely had limitations, but they soared in the Alps or the Pyrenees, putting a lot of heart and faith in their performances. Unfortunately, cycling has lost these ingredients since technology put an end to cyclists’ capacity for initiative.
But Bernal has transformed the genetics of Colombia’s cycling school: he has been able to preserve the best of his country’s tradition while absorbing what he needed from the European school to become a complete runner. He also has a natural talent for which there is no training: character and intelligence.
Many cycling experts had been announcing it since he won the Tour del Porvenir in 2017; and Egan Bernal was prepared to be the first Colombian cyclist to win the Tour de France.
Although at that time his fellow countryman Nairo Quintana was one of the favorites to win the gala round, many were already noticing in the runner from Bogota that unique and captivating personality only present in the chosen ones. Two years later the forecasts were fulfilled.
In 1987, Lucho Herrera was the first Colombian cyclist to win one of the three grand tours: la Vuelta Ciclista a España. Nairo Quintana climbed a bit higher and won the Spanish tour as well as the Giro d’Italia. He made the podium at the French Tour, as did Fabio Parra and Rigoberto Urán, but none of them was able to achieve what Egan Bernal conquered last July
Bernal, a Meteoric Career
The Colombian trained for several years with Fabio Rodríguez, a former gregarious runner during two Spanish Tours in the early 1990s. He worked with him until the age of 16 but then, influenced by manager Pablo Mazuera, he decided to go on the mountain bike and in that new terrain he reached international recognition.
That newfound prestige drove him back to road cycling and his path to success was as meteoric as unstoppable. Gianni Savio, of the Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec team, invited him to participate in a trial of the Italian junior calendar. He excelled and the experienced trainer offered him a four-year contract, of which he had only fulfilled half when the powerful Team Sky – presently, Ineos – recruited him in 2017.
“When I saw Egan Bernal, what I saw was a very humble child, deep inside he looked fragile”, Mazuera explains. “But he has an overflowing talent, can achieve superhuman conditions and is very dedicated”.
The shy and skinny Bernal debuted three seasons ago in road cycling and his results since then have been impressive. In 2017 he was crowned the Tour del Porvenir champion, in 2018 he triumphed at the Tour of California and in mid-June he won the Tour of Switzerland. In July he reached the peak of the world cycling with his win at the Tour de France.
“He is one of the best climbers on the planet and he also has a positive response in the race against the clock”, one of the historical weaknesses of Colombians, says Mauricio Silva, author of “La leyenda de los escarabajos” (The Legend of the Beetles), a book about the exploits in Europe of the runners from the coffee-producing country.
When he received the trophy as the winner at the Champs Elysees in Paris, he had to make great efforts to hold back the tears during the Colombian anthem. But once he stepped down, he cried profusely as never before for a man with a reputation for being of calm disposition and unwavering character.