Half an hour or so before stage 3 of the Vuelta a San Juan, Egan Bernal took his bike and slipped quietly out of the shed that was sheltering his Ineos Grenadiers team from the dazzling afternoon sunshine beating down upon the Villicum motor racing circuit.
It was neither a warm-up nor a bike test. Instead, Bernal pedalled with languid strokes through the team paddocks, surveying the gentle bustle of cyclists preparing themselves for another day in the saddle before circling back slowly once again. Just an ordinary day at a bike race, but it’s still extraordinary that Bernal is here to be a part of it at all.
Tuesday marked the first anniversary of Bernal’s horrendous training crash in Bogota, which left him with injuries including fractured vertebrae, a fractured femur, a fractured patella and a punctured lung. His life was at risk in the hours immediately after the crash. For weeks afterwards, it felt uncouth even to wonder whether he might ever resume his career.
Yet day by day, stage by stage, Bernal began to fight his way back. By late spring, he was back on a bike. By early summer, he was back training with his Ineos teammates. By late summer, he was back in the peloton at the Deutschland Tour.
Bernal begins this season hoping he might yet get back to the level that carried him to victory at the 2019 Tour de France and 2021 Giro d’Italia. Yet while his focus is fixed on the future, January 24 was never going to go by without some contemplation of the distance travelled over the past year.
“This stage itself isn’t one for me, but the day is one of reflection, you could put it that way,” Bernal told Cyclingnews in Villicum on Tuesday. “I’m happy to be here in this position a year after the crash, and I’m enjoying this race, it’s important for me.”
On Tuesday morning, Bernal had sat down for a round of television interviews at his hotel to mark the anniversary of his crash, and his ongoing comeback is, of course, one of the key storylines at this Vuelta a San Juan. Bernal’s friend and sometime training partner Óscar Sevilla (Medellín-EPM) was among many to express wonderment this week at the journey he has undertaken over the last twelve months.
“Egan is a special rider and champion, but what he has done this year is worth more than any race,” Sevilla said. “I think the accident has also helped him to analyse his whole life a little bit.”
Bernal has himself acknowledged that he had sometimes struggled with the weight of being Colombia’s first Tour winner in the aftermath of his youthful 2019 triumph, though Sevilla reckoned he had already begun to come to terms with the magnitude of that achievement even before his crash.
“Maybe a rider who wins the Tour at an older age, like Indurain or Froome, is better prepared to cope with the changes that come, but Egan was maturing anyway with the passing of the years,” Sevilla said. “He was already a very intelligent and mature person, but I think the accident has helped him to mature even more. I see him very focused and very calm emotionally, and I think he’ll bring us a lot of joy this year.”
Bernal echoed his friend’s assessment. The crash and its aftermath may have given him time to reflect, but the burden of being Egan Bernal was already lightening with the very passing of the years.
“When I won the Tour, I was only 22 years old and now I’m 26, so in any case, something would have changed,” Bernal said. “But for anybody who wins the Tour, it’s not easy to stay calm and manage everything. Still, like I said, four years have passed, four years with lots of changes, and now I’m starting to have a bit more experience, so it’s easier to manage these things.”
Bernal plans to return to the Tour this year, even if, for now, he is understandably reticent to discuss his ambitions beyond his desire to be “competitive.” This week at San Juan, too, it is unclear how he will fare against men like Remco Evenepoel (Soudal-QuickStep) and Miguel Ángel López (Medellín-EPM) at Alto Colorado on Thursday, but the early stages have been encouraging.
“On these flat stages, we’re trying to work in the finale for Elia [Viviani], to bring him to the front, and then get to the finish in the group,” Bernal said. “Up to now, on the flat, everything’s in its right place. The first stages have been good, they’ve been normal.”
After the year Bernal has had, normal is very good indeed.