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The 2019 Tour winner and his dramatic comeback story reaches an important crossroads this week in the eight-day race across the French Alps.
A strong showing could punch his ticket in what would be an emotional return to cycling’s biggest stage.
“I am not thinking so far to be honest, I just want to finish this race,” Bernal told ITV in France. “I would like to see where I am. I have been racing, but it’s not like the Dauphiné.
“This is the first big, big race I’ve done after two years. It’s a good test already. The best scenario is to finish this race, and know where I am.”
The Dauphiné is a traditional testing ground for Tour-bound favorites, but it’s even more important for Bernal.
His 2022 training crash that nearly left him in a wheelchair is still fresh in his mind as he embarks on his toughest racing challenge since his comeback.
Bernal said he missed a planned start at the Tour of Norway last month after catching a small cold at the Tour de Hongrie, where he finished an encouraging eighth overall. He missed a week of training, but is keen to test himself against the bigger climbs looming in the closing weekend at the Dauphiné.
“I am feeling good. I am training well. I am sure I have good feelings, but training is different than racing,” Bernal said. “It’s going to be a good test for me.”
The 26-year-old Bernal continues to defy the odds. The Ineos Grenadiers rider nearly died and ended up paralyzed when he struck the back of a parked bus at high speed during a training ride in Colombia in January 2022.
Bernal not only recovered from his injuries to be able to be fully mobile, he surprised many to return to racing before the season was out.
Ineos DS: ‘We can feel he’s really close’
Coming into 2023, the Tour de France was always on the table as a possible target. Though he’s suffered some other setbacks this season, including a minor knee injury and some crashes and illness, he’s made enough progress that a Tour start remains viable.
“Obviously, Egan [Bernal] is still coming back,” said Ineos Grenadiers sport director Steven Cummings. “He’s done amazingly well, we can feel he’s really close.”
This week’s race will prove decisive whether or not he travels to Bilbao to start the 2023 Tour in Spain’s Basque Country.
Bernal was relieved to survive the challenging opening stage Sunday that featured 3,000 meters of vertical in a ripsaw profile that ended in a reduced bunch sprint, finishing 21st in the select front group of 43 riders.
On paper, Monday’s undulating 167.3km second stage Brassac-les-Mines to La Chaise-Dieu shouldn’t prove a major test for the Tour-bound favorites. Each stage now, however, is a new crucible for Bernal.
It’s just these kinds of high-speed, attack-riddled profiles that any GC contender needs to survive to arrive to the decisive mountain stages.
The Dauphiné is loaded with these kinds of technical, climb-heavy stages that will let Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers know very quickly if he’ll be up for the challenge of taking on the Tour in less than one month’s time.
Most Grand Tour wins (active riders):
7 – Chris Froome
4 – Primoz Roglic
2 – Egan Bernal, Tadej Pogacar, Nairo Quintana
— CafeRoubaix (@CafeRoubaix) May 28, 2023
Bernal confirmed he is not sure if he will race the Tour next month.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” he told Flo Bikes. “I just have this race, and it depends on how the race goes, and then we plan. I am not even sure how I am. We don’t know if I am good or not so good, and this race will be a good test.”
Bernal remains committed to seeing how far his comeback can go, yet he’s also more philosophical about his future. He knows he’s lucky not only to be able to walk, but to be able to race again.
After blazing to victory as Colombia’s first Tour winner, he once seemed destined to rule the yellow jersey. Injuries and then his horrific 2022 crash put unexpected hurdles on the road. The rise of Tadej Pogačar and Jonas Vingegaard only complicate his Tour future.
After what he’s been through, every day is a gift. Bernal vows to keep fighting.
“When you have a couple of years like this, with so many accidents and bad luck, you need to be strong mentally,” he said.