Tour de France: Courage and Respect?

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.

Egan Bernal

Egan Bernal Riding the Tour de France

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.

1 thought on “Tour de France: Courage and Respect?

  1. I was also disappointed by his lack of respect for the race. I saw him smiling as he spent one day in the autobus at the tail of the race. I was considering that the team had decided that he needed to lose even more time so he’d be free to pursue a stage victory. While I think he might have ended up winning last year even without the early stage termination, I was pretty annoyed at the time that his rivals were robbed of the opportunity to challenge him, not just because of the shortened stage but because they weren’t told that the stage would be shortened early enough to adjust their strategy. If I’m fair, I have a certain dislike for Bernal because of his team and how he arrived on the scene — I feel like he was pretty much handed the keys to the most powerful stage racing team in existence at the time. Under different circumstances maybe I’d be more charitable towards him — but Sky/Ineos doesn’t get that sort of slack from me now. On the other hand, I didn’t really mind seing Ineos’s Carapace and Kwiatkowski fighting for scraps and taking that stage after Bernal departed.

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