Egan Bernal’s belated first Grand Tour stage win at Giro d'Italia a timely reminder of his craft
Back issues have beset the Colombian these past two years but Egan Bernal finally looks back to his best – as seen in Sunday’s dirt-road demolition of his rivals at the ski resort of Campo Felice in Stage 9 of the Giro d'Italia.
Highlights: Bernal stars on dirt climb to take maglia rosa
Campo Felice translates literally as ‘Happy Field’ which was somewhat a misrepresentation of the general mood after an enthralling Stage 9 on Sunday. The rest of the field was indeed far from happy as Egan Bernal laid down his credentials as the favourite for this 104th edition of the Giro d’Italia.
Any question marks surrounding the fitness of the 24-year-old – most notably regarding his ongoing back complaints – seem to have been answered by his pulverising performance on the piste, Bernal powering up the compacted gravel ski lift access road to a landmark victory in Stage 9.
Landmark because the seventeenth victory of the Colombian’s already quite illustrious career was also, perhaps amazingly, his first ever in Grand Tours. For as a Grand Tour winner, Bernal is no Tadej Pogacar. Both may have won the Tour de France early in their 20s but the way they did so could not have been more different.
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Pogacar came to the Tour following a podium finish in his debut Vuelta in which he won three mountain stages. The Slovenian tyro then mirrored that victory count in France on his way to overturning his deficit to countryman Primoz Roglic on the penultimate day’s time trial. He had the world transfixed.
When Bernal won his maiden Tour in 2019 it was almost apologetically via the backdoor. Granted, were it not for some freak hailstorms and a landslide outside Tignes, the Colombian could have secured his overall victory with a stunning Stage 19 win. But as it happened, the cancellation of the stage and taking of times for the GC battle at the top of the penultimate climb, the Col d'Iseran, meant that Bernal only really took over the maillot jaune from Julian Alaphilippe on a technicality.
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With that. Bernal joined the small list of riders who had rather underwhelmingly won the Tour without winning a stage – following in the footsteps of the likes of Firmin Lambot, Roger Walkowiak, Greg LeMond and Oscar Pereiro.
Before Bernal’s lack of Pogacar-esque punchiness became a complaint, the Colombian had somewhat taken a step back from the narrative, having failed to finish last year’s Tour before being sidelined for both the subsequent Giro and Vuelta because of the same back injury.
The 24-year-old revealed last October that the back pain stemmed from having an imbalance in his legs leading to scoliosis in his spine. Rather downcast, he said that it would take a long period of rehabilitation to remedy the problem and warned that the pain may be something he had to learn to live with – that it wouldn’t just vanish overnight.
Without overburdening his programme or the demands on his spine, Bernal rode a solid spring season this year without ever standing on top of a podium. He came third in the Tour de la Provence after finishing runner-up on Mont Ventoux, then came third in Strade Bianche and fourth in Tirreno-Adriatico – all while the likes of Pogacar and Roglic were picking up wins like there was no tomorrow, and in doing so, seemingly deepening the chasm developing between them and Bernal, who was fast becoming yesterday's man.
Entering the Giro instead of moulding a season around the Tour is now proving to be a canny decision. It was clear that Bernal needed not only to get over his injury, but to regain his confidence – and to do so away from the pressures of the Tour circus (including the duel challenges of Pog and Rog). In Italy, in what is admittedly a weakened field than those in which he usually operates, Bernal has now managed to do what he had previously eluded him: win – and win in style – a Grand Tour stage.
Bernal: 'Even I can’t believe what is happening'
Victory puts Bernal in pink ahead of Tuesday’s rest day – and although he (and his back) will face far sterner tests in the second half of this race, Bernal looks in line to keep the maglia rosa all the way to Milan. And if he does so, it's highly likely that this is not the last time we see him ride clear of his rivals and win a summit finish. He certainly has the right team to help him do that, with Ineos Grenadiers once again proving to be a masterful unit on the undulating roads through the wild and empty Abruzzo.
With powerhouse Filippo Ganna allowed to take a rare backseat, the likes of Salvatore Puccio and Gianni Moscon came to the fore for Dave Brailsford’s outfit, paving the way perfectly for their leader’s victory.
So far, it’s gone almost entirely to plan for Ineos Grenadiers at this Giro – the withdrawal of Pavel Sivakov aside. The Russian entered the race as supposed co-leader alongside Bernal – perhaps a precautionary token title in case the 2019 Tour winner’s back played up.
But while Sivakov cruelly crashed out in Stage 5 to Cattolica, Bernal has gone from strength to strength. Ineos have shown as recently as last year’s Giro just six months ago that they are perfectly capable of controlling a race – and doing so in style – with one of their top riders down and out.
In 2020 they were able to win the entire thing through Tao Geoghegan Hart, a rider who wasn’t even the Plan B before Geraint Thomas was sent packing early. If Sivakov is no Thomas, Bernal is no Geoghegan Hart. He is – and this is no disrespect to the 2020 winner – in an entirely different league to the rangy all-rounder from Hackney. And by adding a Giro title to his palmares this May, Bernal would be able to put his problems behind him and get his career back on track.
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