Giro d’Italia: Ineos Grenadiers and the Egan Bernal enigma

Which version of Egan Bernal will show up at the Giro d'Italia? The Ineos Grenadiers star packs plenty of question marks and expectation into the season's first grand tour.

Photo: Marco Bertorello - Pool/Getty Images

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Which version of Egan Bernal is going to show up at the Giro d’Italia?

The happy-go-lucky, two-wheeled ambassador who danced to victory unburdened by the weight of expectation at the 2019 Tour de France?

Or the stressed-out, out-gunned pulp of a rider who flamed out of the 2020 Tour?

Or will the Giro peloton see a wiser, even more dangerous version?

Also read: Will Egan Bernal win another Tour de France?

Of all the top favorites lining up at the Giro on Saturday, perhaps no one on the start list packs as much intrigue, pressure, expectation, and potential as the 24-year-old Colombian.

Ineos Grenadiers confirmed its “Giro Eight” on Tuesday, with the cautious designation of Bernal riding with co-captaincy with Pavel Sivakov.

Just call it the Bernal enigma.

Tour de France 2020: A summer of discontent

Egan Bernal cycling in a pack of riders
Egan Bernal cracked on Grand Colombier. Photo: Christophe Petit Tesson/Getty Images.

Less than two years ago, many thought the peloton was at the dawn of the Bernal Era. The Colombian climber steamrolled into history with apparent ease in the 2019 Tour to win Latin America’s first yellow jersey.

Backed by the might, money and experience of Ineos Grenadiers, Bernal seemed destined to slip into the slipstream of Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas.

Bernal, a quiet, unassuming young man, was poised to become the new, modern icon of cycling’s richest team, and continue Hoovering up yellow jerseys.

Or so it seemed.

Last summer, Bernal ran smack into the brute force of Jumbo-Visma and Wout van Aert. The Dutch team turned the tables on Ineos Grenadiers in France, cornering Bernal against the ropes, with van Aert finishing him off midway up Grand Colombier. Bernal was gone 48 hours later.

Bernal blamed a bad back, and a start-and-stop preparation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. There were rumors of an uneven off-season between 2019 and 2020, and how the death of Ineos sport director Nicolas Portal left Bernal rudderless in the peloton. Back in Colombia, Bernal was catapulted into superstardom, and was caught up with the media demands and temptations that come for any newly minted Tour de France winner.

Yet everything seemed fine during last year’s Tour, until it wasn’t.

Also read: Egan Bernal withers under Slovenian assault

If Bernal was suffering from back problems, he hid them well. He came out of the Pyrénées showing glimpses of explosive power that carried him so far so fast, and was poised only 21 seconds behind yellow jersey Primož Roglič. In fact, he seemed to be gaining momentum just when it counted.

The first chinks in the armor were visible on the brutal steeps of Puy de Mary in stage 13. Bernal couldn’t follow Roglič on the steep ramps up the dormant volcano, and even though the elastic snapped only a few hundred meters from the line, there’s no hiding when the Tour lays bare any rider’s weakness.

Two days later, Bernal cracked under the incessant hammer-drill of van Aert on Grand Colombier, and lost seven minutes. Bernal did not start two days later, and did not race again until February.

High expectations for a big Giro ride

Flash forward to February, and Bernal roared into the European spring, perhaps driven to prove any would-be doubters that he’s still the same rider who blazed into the history books. He’s been working with a German specialist to deal with nagging back problems that some say come from uneven leg length.

Inside the opaque bubble of what is Ineos Grenadiers, however, it’s hard to have any real insight to what is going on behind the scenes. With COVID-19 keeping journalists corralled into media pens, it’s a challenge to get more than a few spoon-fed PR quotes out of the team.

Setbacks are part and parcel of professional cycling. And up to 2020, Bernal seemed to have it almost too easy.

Will Bernal bounce back to regain the early momentum of his career? This Giro d’Italia will go a long way to answer that question.

Coming into 2021, all evidence suggests that the peloton will see Egan Bernal — version 2019 — on Saturday at the start ramp in Torino.

Also read: How Ineos Grenadiers plans to win the 2021 Tour de France without Bernal

Bernal returned to Colombia after ripping across the European spring, capped by a dramatic third place at Strade Bianche and a solid fourth at Tirreno-Adriatico. He was spotted recently training near Monaco, and will line up Saturday in Torino backed by an incredibly deep Ineos Grenadiers team.

If Bernal falters, Sivakov and Dani Martínez are waiting in the wings.

Bernal’s Giro debut is packed with the expectation across the peloton that he is five-star favorite to win. In fact, with the team and pedigree Bernal brings, one sport director believes it’s Bernal’s Giro to lose.

Of course, every race is won on the road.

Giro presents opportunity and risk

Egan Bernal at the Tour de France
Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Class doesn’t disappear in a day.

If he’s healthy, it’s hard imagining anyone with the legs or team to mount a serious challenge for the pink jersey.

If he falters, Bernal could quickly find himself in very tricky terrain.

Not only is Ineos Grenadiers stacked with GC stars all elbowing for their chance to lead, there’s another Tour de l’Avenir-Tour de France double-winner out there named Tadej Pogačar.

This Giro isn’t make-or-break for Bernal. Far from it.

He’s only 24, and time is on his side.

Also read: Bernal logging epic training rides in recovery 

Yet the sport is riddled with riders who win a Tour at a young age and see themselves coronated as the next generational star, only to flame out under the pressure of expectation or run straight into a stronger, more ambitious rival.

In 2018, Bernal was so good that Ineos Grenadiers pulled him out of a planned Giro start to bring him to the Tour.

In 2021, the team is bypassing the Tour to send him to the Giro to let him rediscover his balance and magical flow that carried him from the 2017 Tour de l’Avenir to the Champs-Élysées some 24 months later.

A pink jersey in May would go a long way to easing any disappointment of losing the yellow one last summer in France.

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