When Egan Bernal stood triumphantly in the pink jersey against the backdrop of Milan’s Duomo, lifting the iconic Trofeo Senza Fine having just achieved overall victory at the 2021 Giro d’Italia, little would he or anyone have expected that it would be the last time he’d stand on the podium at a bike race for over two and a half years.
That victory marked a reassuring return to the Colombian’s best following a worrying loss of form the previous year when chronic back problems had caused a slump in form as he tried to defend his Tour title. Concerns that he may never again reach the same level as he did at the 2019 Tour de France, where he became the youngest rider in over a century to win the yellow jersey, were alleviated, and Bernal was back on course to become the definitive Grand Tour of his generation.
We know now that things didn’t quite go so smoothly, and that Bernal would go on to suffer another, even more serious setback. After returning later in the year to ride the Vuelta a España, where he finished a solid if not as spectacular sixth place overall, Bernal’s preparation for the 2022 season came to an abrupt and shocking halt when he collided into a parked bus while on a training ride. It wasn’t just his career that was under threat, but even his life, and the doctors treating him considered the multiple fractions he sustained and time spent in intensive care to be a lucky outcome, considering how much worse it could have been.
Last Wednesday was the two-year anniversary of that life-changing incident, and Bernal’s recovery has been gradual. His return to racing in the August of 2022 was earlier than expected, but the pace of his recovery slackened the following year when promising early results in and around the top ten at the Tour de Romandie and Critérium du Dauphiné did not translate to a similarly high finish at the Tour de France. Still, the fact he managed to complete all three weeks of that race and then finish a second successive Grand Tour next month at the Vuelta a España was a sign that the Colombian was working his way back up to full race fitness.
Now, as the 2024 season gets underway, we might already be seeing the fruits of those efforts. At the Colombian National Championships last week, Bernal’s first races of the year, he followed up a solid sixth-place finish in Thursday’s time trial with a lively third-place finish in the road race on Sunday. Joining forces with Sergio Higuita, he led the chase in the final phase of the race to try to bring back long-range attacker Alejandro Osorio, and, though they couldn’t quite make the catch in time, he held off every other pursuer to finish third overall.
Egan Bernal in the maglia rosa at the 2021 Giro d'Italia
Such a result would not have been especially newsworthy in past years, but on this occasion marks a significant moment in Bernal’s comeback as his highest finish in any race since the crash two years ago. As he climbed onto the rostrum to collect his bronze medal alongside Osorio and Higuita, it was his first time on a podium since his aforementioned victory at the 2021 Giro d’Italia. It might not have been against as high calibre an opposition, nor in front of so many fans and media, but, to Bernal, it must have been an emotional moment.
Could this result be an early indication that the 2024 season might see Bernal returning to his best? He wasn’t getting carried away after the race, telling local television station Deportes RCN that he had “to keep [his] feet on the ground,” but also talked about a psychological boost he felt in racing for victory. “To a certain extent, I felt nostalgic during the race, I felt like the Egan of old. I said I was going to give everything: I didn’t care if I got dropped on a climb, I was riding flat out. That's how I used to race, without fear, and I felt that way again.”
Whereas Bernal spent most of last year either in survival mode, trying to hang on in the mountains, sometimes even in the grupetto, or in a subservient role as a domestique for his team-mates, this was his first race in a long time riding towards the front as one of the favourites for victory. Returning to racing after such a horrific accident may have been an achievement in and of itself, but for someone of the calibre of Bernal, used to being among the strongest in the peloton, it would have required some readjustment to his usual expectations and approach to racing. These past two years cannot have been fun for Bernal, even when he was back on his bike again, and the enjoyment of once again being able to compete for victory in Colombia might be a major motivation for him to continue striving on his long road to recovery.
Racing for victory at the Colombian National Championships is one thing, but doing so in the Grand Tours will still require much more work. And it’s also worth acknowledging just how much the Grand Tour scene has changed since Bernal’s breakthrough. When he won the Tour in 2019, Tadej Pogačar was still just a neo-pro catching the eye with victories in minor stage races, Remco Evenepoel was a hyped junior yet to win a race at WorldTour level, and Jonas Vingegaard was still essentially unknown. Those three riders have since brought the whole sport into a new frontier, with Pogačar winning the Tour at an even younger age than Bernal did, Vingegaard raising the standards even further with his two Tour victories the following year, and Evenepoel performing the kind of rides and feats in both stages and one-day races previously thought impossible.
Egan Bernal during the ITT in the 2023 Tour de France
Would Bernal have managed to add to his one Tour title even had he remained fit against this new generation of stars? He’d have surely had to have raised his game, particularly as a time trialist — although the Colombian’s surprisingly quick sprint and proven skills on surfaces like gravel make him a modern all-rounder, he still isn’t quite as multi-faceted as some of the riders to have since emerged, and his inferior time trial, in particular, would see him lose minutes to his Grand Tour rivals. Whereas back then youth was on his side, and there was plenty of scope for natural improvement as he matured, this month saw him turn 27 years old, an age certainly no longer considered young in modern cycling.
Perhaps, therefore, talk of Bernal returning to his best should not be interpreted as seeing him become a Tour de France contender once again. It’s understandable to have such high expectations of a rider who appeared to be such a once-in-a-generation talent at the start of his career, but things have changed since then, both to Bernal himself and cycling as a whole. He is, in fact, not even prioritising the Tour this year, considering participating there of secondary concern towards his main goal of targeting GC at the Vuelta a España. There’s still a long way to go until that race and plenty of other events to test himself in before (starting with next week’s Tour of Colombia), but the early signs are that we might yet see Egan Bernal not just on the podium again, but maybe even on the top step at a Grand Tour once more.