Bred at altitude, Egan Bernal lifts Colombian cycling to new heights
Tour de France winner’s story a genuine rags to riches tale
Zipaquirá — Egan Bernal grew up at altitude and won the Tour de France on the highest slopes, but learnt to ride in the foggy forests around his home town.
Bernal was born in Bogota and grew up 42km north in Zipaquira, a mining and agricultural town, which sits at an elevation of 2,650m in a valley surrounded by mountains. His father was a watchman and his mother graded cut flowers for export.
On Sunday, 22-year-old Bernal became Colombia’s first Tour de France winner and the youngest of any nationality since 1909.
As a child, Bernal took up cross-country biking and trained in the nearby woods under the guidance of Fabio Rodriguez, a Zipaquira native who had ridden in the Spanish Vuelta.
Young cyclists can hear the roar of a chainsaw and see other youngsters earn their living by cutting down huge trees and carrying them on their shoulders to trucks.
“That’s why I keep telling kids that it’s better to get up early and train by bike,” Rodriguez said.
Bernal dedicated his victory to Pablo Mazuera Zambrano, “my first manager”.
Mazuera said financial pressure almost persuaded the youngster to give up, despite a silver in the world junior cross-country championships in Norway in 2014 and a bronze in 2015 in Andorra.
“He came from a very low-income family,” Mazuera said. “He started at university, in media studies. He got a scholarship. He wanted to quit because he wanted to be a journalist.”
After the finish of the penultimate stage on Saturday, Bernal thanked Mazuera.
“At one point, I stopped riding,” Bernal said. “He told me to try. Thanks to him, I’m riding a bike. He’s guilty.”
Bernal was recruited by Italian Gianni Savio, who needed a climber for his Androni team. After two promising years, Sky swooped and bought his contract for €250,000.
“He’s a good person,” Savio said. “He has kept the humility he had when he joined our team.”
In June, Bernal won the Tour of Switzerland but insisted the victory did not change his role at Ineos behind 2018 Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas.
“Geraint will be our leader and my job is to help him,” Bernal said.
Former boss Savio praised Bernal’s attitude. “He showed all his intelligence,” said Savio. “After his victory, he said right away that he would work on the Tour de France for Geraint Thomas. Others would have launched a claim, but not him. It was then the Ineos team said they would have two leaders.”
In the 1980s, Colombian Fabio Parra finished as high as third in the Tour and compatriot Luis Herrera won the 1987 Vuelta. In recent years, Nairo Quintana, winner of the 2014 Giro and the 2016 Vuelta, and Rigoberto Uran have finished on the Paris podium.
But while Herrera, Santiago Botero, Mauricio Soler and Quintana all won the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey, no Colombian had finished first overall in the Tour.
At just 22 years old, Bernal has changed that. His victory also marks a changing of the guard at Ineos. As Sky, they won six of the last seven Tours with Bradley Wiggins (2012), Chris Froome (2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) and Thomas (2018). All are British and all were over 28 when they won their first Tour.
“He has the physique of someone older,” Savio said of Bernal.
In 2018 Bernal was the loyal domestique to Froome and Thomas, always the last man pulling the Sky leaders up the steepest slopes. After Bernal finished 15th overall, team boss Dave Brailsford called the Colombian “the man of the match”.
On the 2019 Tour, the three Alpine stages originally offered six climbs over 2,000m peaking at 2,770m on the Col d’Iseran on Friday, where Bernal took the overall lead.
On Thursday Bernal chased stage winner Quintana up the 2,642m Galibier.
“When Bernal made the attack, he was able to take advantage of the altitude,” Quintana said. “We live at 2,700m.”
Bernal has shown he can fight back. His Tour seemed lost after an unusually poor time trial in Pau when he dropped 1min 36sec to Julian Alaphilippe.
“It was the worst day of my career,” Bernal said.
Sunday, however, was the best.