Egan Bernal is a young Colombian cyclist who won the 2019 Tour de France at the age of 22. This year, however, he dropped out of the Tour, immediately before the beginning of yesterday’s most difficult “Queen Stage” 17, from Grenoble to Méribel Col de Loze, featuring an uphill finishing climb of over 20 km, with some sections near the end rising above a cruel 20% grade. Bernal came into the Tour with a bad back, but was nevertheless designated by his team, Ineos, as their primary contender for overall victory. The team had designated two former Tour winners, Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome, to the Giro d’Italia (begins October 3) and Vuelta a España (begins October 20) respectively. When he left he was in 16th place, trailing the race leader, Primoz Roglic, by 19 minutes and 4 seconds.
Bernal won last year’s Tour on a kind of fluke. He was among the contenders for overall victory at the beginning of Stage 19, a route with a big climb in the middle and an uphill finish. He attacked on the big climb and was leading the race on the descent when it was neutralized. In the valley between the big climb and the finishing uphill route, heavy hail and rain had produced landslides that made the road impassible. All riders were assigned times for the stage based on their position at the time the race was neutralized. So Bernal vaulted into first place overall and did not lose ground on the single remaining contested stage of the race. Typically, had the neutralized stage been continued, he would have been attacked on the final climb by other contenders who were saving their strength for the final push. That is what actually happened yesterday on a very similar route; the breakaway leaders were caught and passed on the last uphill by the group of strongest riders.
Bernal’s back injury this year is not to be trifled with. He went to the Tour to see how well he could hold up, and he found out he couldn’t. But the question of whether he should have pulled out remains. Despite his protests to the contrary, it shows a certain disrespect for the race. The attitude conveyed is that since Bernal was no longer a contender for overall victory, his presence didn’t matter. He had better things to do, namely prepare himself to win one or two remaining races this year, perhaps even one of the remaining major Tours. Why struggle at the rear of the race (dubbed the “autobus” and consisting of sprinters and others not in overall contention)? Why be there to assist teammates? It’s somewhat reminiscent of the attitude of erstwhile champion sprinter Mario Cipollini, who would win three or four sprints during the first week of the Tour and then pull out before the mountain stages began. “Altitude sickness,” as it was sardonically called. He used the Tour, and provided both sprint skills and a flashy personality, but never once finished it. He’s still seen more as a flashy rider than a great Tour champion.
So Bernal’s now 23 years old, and he already has a compromised relationship with the Tour. First he won on a fluke with a neutralized stage, and now he and his team have pulled him out early. He has yet to complete a full Tour de France, and he has yet to win a regular Tour while racing against the best in the world. Let’s hope that next year he can demonstrate who he really is, for better or for worse.
©Arnold Bradford, 2020.