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Nine months ago, the chance of Egan Bernal even walking again was put at just 5% by one expert following his life-threatening training crash. But after almost seven months and a number of surgical procedures to fix a horrifying list of injuries, the 2019 Tour de France champion was back in the peloton. He lined up for just 12 race days in August and September, but with his last operation now out of the way, Bernal can finally put the events of January 24th behind him and look ahead.
“They did the last surgery a month ago on my knee, and since then I’ve been on holiday a bit, and doing some training,” Bernal told Caracol Radio in a lengthy interview. “Assuming everything goes fine, and if I recover the strength I get back fully in my right leg, which was the most affected, I would start 2023 as a [100% fit] rider. And I’d like to go back to the Tour.”
Bernal indicated that, if fully fit, his 2023 season might start in February at the Tour Colombia (pending fitness, team sign-off and whether the race runs as scheduled). After his home race and the subsequent Nationals, he would then head for Europe and key form-testers Paris-Nice, Strade Bianche and the Critérium du Dauphiné as he plots a course to the Tour de France, a race he’s only started once since taking overall victory in 2019.
A lot has happened since then. Leaving aside the elephant in the room, we’ve had three Tours with two new superstar winners, and a whole cast of new characters have stepped into the spotlight Bernal unwillingly vacated. The sport and its key players have changed dramatically.
Bernal has become a case study in the perils of ‘next big thing’ discourse. Thought to be Nairo Quintana’s potentially more prolific successor as Colombia’s best Grand Tour hope, the thoughtful young climber had a meteoric rise that led to him becoming the youngest Tour champion in over a century. That remarkable achievement was overshadowed in the very next year, but the then-22-year-old Colombian got there first.
You might say it’s at least partly thanks to Bernal – who shared a team bus and the overall podium with defending champion Geraint Thomas in 2019 – that we are where we find ourselves now. Gone are the days of neo pros undergoing a two-year apprenticeship as water carriers, with the occasional opportunity at the season’s smaller races; the “little whippersnappers” are off the leash.
And while it’s been great for the sport, this comes with an unfortunate side effect, and that’s the redundancy or relative obscurity of their only slightly older peers.
Romain Bardet could be considered among that number. A steady presence in the Tour’s top 10 from 2014-18 (aged 23 to 27), with a career-best second place behind Chris Froome in 2016, the Frenchman fell out with his home race for a few years but made a strong return in 2022. A few months after showing spectacular form in the first half of the Giro d’Italia, Bardet was a key contender in the battle for minor placings behind the prize fight between Jonas Vingegaard and Tadej Pogačar.
It’s hard not to feel sympathy for the wiry Frenchman, who has looked refreshed and reinvigorated since swapping the blue and brown of AG2R with a DSM jersey. When Bardet was coming up through the ranks, Grand Tour success was reserved for ‘experienced’ riders, with the young guns left to cycling’s equivalent of the kids’ table in the white jersey competition. He should be right in the sweet spot now, but with the ascendance of a new class of 20 to 25-year-olds, older riders are left wondering what happened, when did their chance fly by?
“For me, I feel like there’s a generation window that never happened,” Bardet told Eurosport France earlier this week, speaking specifically about ‘cycling genuises’ Pogačar and newly minted Vuelta and world champion Remco Evenepoel. “It was not empty words when I said in 2016 or 2017 that my best years were still ahead of me. The numbers are clear, I’m stronger than those years but there are even stronger young riders. The window of fullness in which I am, in terms of results, cannot be seen. Cycling has evolved very quickly over the past six years.”
While Bardet’s almost 32 years (he celebrates his birthday next month) would put him in the ‘experienced’ category at this point, Bernal is still a fresh-faced 25, a month younger than 2022 Tour champion Jonas Vingegaard, which is why comparing his situation with that of Chris Froome is not really fair. Not yet at least.
Bernal has youth on his side for one thing, and he’s even indicated that the spinal procedures he underwent after the crash might have rectified the back pain that had plagued him since 2020 and was the cause for his early withdrawal from that year’s Tour. This and the long break forced upon him this year might, he thinks, work in his favour come next July.
That said, the competition appears to have evolved considerably, so Bernal’s 2019 Tour-winning level will not be enough. He’s building back from zero, but now needs to achieve something more like 120% fitness if he’s to challenge Vingegaard, Pogačar and Evenepoel (though probably not at the Tour yet…) in the near future.
“It goes without saying that they are very strong,” Bernal said when asked about facing the Tour’s newer superstars, “but I have faith and I’ve won a Giro and a Tour myself. It would be a very interesting Tour, to go there, give it everything and then – may the strongest rider win. That’s sport.”
There are nine months between now and then, nine months for Bernal to recover from this last surgery, return to fitness and get into the thick of some racing at the start of next season. Whether Bernal can contest even the podium remains to be seen; we can only hope that he gets the culture shock out of the way long before the Grand Départ.
But if all goes well, he will very likely be at the Tour de France next summer, and that’s a victory in itself.