Bernal was a phenomenon. He was the first South American cyclist to win the Tour and, at 22 years and 196 days of age, the second youngest since 1909. It was easy to believe that Ineos’ Tour winning streak would continue for several more years with Bernal in the saddle. But he dropped out of the 2020 Tour because of a back injury, was plagued by injuries the next year and in 2022, he rode into the back of a stationary bus at high speed during a training run and was so badly injured that doctors feared he would die or end up paralyzed. His return to racing later in the year was considered something of a miracle.
Bernal’s aim has always remained winning the Tour again, and his team has backed him without reservation. However, a crash in the first stage of the 2023 Vuelta a San Juan, in his native Colombia, forced him to pull out of the race several stages later with an injured knee, and he has been sidelined ever since, casting doubt on his participation in the Tour this year.
Now Ineos has announced that Bernal will return to racing in Europe at the end of March and could be at the start of the Tour on July 1. “Egan will be back in Europe pretty soon and so, hopefully, he’ll be racing at the end of the month,” team manager Rod Ellingworth said. “Egan’s eager to race but often with these guys, you’ve got to hold him back.” If Bernal does make it to the Tour, what role will he have, considering the fact that he will have lost nearly two months of competitive racing?
Acá seguimos haciendo las cosas con amor, pasión, y sobre todo mucha motivación. 👊🏽
“Para llegar a la luna hay que apuntarle al sol” pic.twitter.com/gx5beUZSCW
— Egan Arley Bernal (@Eganbernal) February 28, 2023
When Ineos spoke publicly in January about its possible strategy for the Tour, the team’s sports director, Steve Cummings, said that Ineos could have three leaders in the Tour, Bernal, Carlos Rodriguez and Dani Martinez. “It’ll be Dani, potentially Egan, and Carlos [as the leaders] in the Tour,” Cummings said, adding that this strategy was not carved in stone. “The season’s long, lots of things can happen, [and] January’s too early to be so specific about it, but that’s our current plan. In May, we will have a much clearer idea of the specifics, how we’ll approach it, and how many riders we’ll protect.”
However, a month later, after Bernal had suffered the knee injury, the strategy changed. “Dani [Martinez] is our main focus for the Tour at the moment,” Ellingworth told Cyclingnews at the Volta ao Algarve, which the 26-year-old Martinez won to take the third stage-race victory of his career, after the Critérium du Dauphiné in 2020 and Itzulia Basque Country last year. “With Egan,” Ellingworth added, “I’m not putting any expectations on him at all. I think that would be unfair. He will have his own expectations because that’s how driven he is. But you can’t say anything about the Tour yet. It’s totally open.”
However, questions must be asked about Bernal’s future as a top cyclist. He has repeatedly declared that he wants to race in the Tour this year and wants to win it again. But has he become too injury-prone to race competitively against the likes of Tadej Pogačar, Jonas Vingegaard and, eventually, Mathieu van der Poel? And will the injuries he suffered in Colombia prevent him from ever reaching his best level again? And, finally, was his 2019 Tour victory a one-off, against riders not on the level with his current rivals? Co-team leader Geraint Thomas finished second to the Colombian in that race, with Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk finishing third.
Until those questions are definitively answered, Bernal continues to receive the full support of his team. “You can’t fault what he has done,” Ellingworth said. “It’s pretty phenomenal where he is. He sends me videos and updates of what he’s doing in training and he couldn’t be doing any more, to be honest. We’re running with him, giving him every opportunity, backing him 100%.”
Every cycling fan should cross their fingers and wish Egan Bernal the best of luck in his comeback. Grand Tour racing in general, and the Tour de France in particular, can only benefit from having another healthy elite rider.