Egan Bernal was a hero of La Vuelta before he even participated in it. Three years ago, he envisioned the Spanish Grand Tour as the ideal terrain for his debut in a three-week race, but circumstances bring him there for the first time in 2021 with the prospect of becoming the youngest winner of the three Grand Tours!
In 85 years, since La Vuelta joined the Tour de France and the Giro d’Italia to form the three Grand Tours, seven riders have registered their names in the winning records of each of them: Jacques Anquetil (at 29 years old), Felice Gimondi (25), Eddy Merckx (27), Bernard Hinault (25), Alberto Contador (25), Vincenzo Nibali (29) and Chris Froome (33). Looking more closely, the one who achieved the treble at the youngest age is Bernard Hinault, who was 25 years, 6 months and 24 days old when the Giro arrived in Milan on June 7, 1980. Since January 13, Egan Bernal is 24 years old. If he climbs on the top step of the podium on September 5 in Obradoiro Square in Santiago de Compostela, he will therefore beat – largely – a new precocity record after having dethroned Felice Gimondi as youngest Yellow Jersey of the Tour de France in Paris in 2019 (at 22) before being himself debunked by Tadej Pogacar (21).
In the months following his triumph (to be the first Colombian to win the Tour was huge in the legend of global cycling and national sport), Egan Bernal repeated his dearest wish as an athlete: “I want to win all three Grand Tours, it would be great to be part of cycling history like that.“ Claiming the three was therefore a priority, in his mind, before even thinking of winning the Tour de France a second time, a goal his employer, Team Ineos, set for him in 2020, but without success since back pain forced him to retire and prematurely end his season. He has patiently rebuilt since then, and won the Giro in May.
It is curious to note that in the end, nothing went as planned in the already extraordinary career of the climber of Zipaquira. He turned pro at 18, at an age usually dedicated to learning in the U23 ranks, on the road after being trained as a mountain biker, and in Italy, in a team, Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec, who, logically, should have entered the Giro d’Italia. But during the two years he spent in Gianni Savio’s team (2016 and 2017), they were not invited to the Corsa Rosa! The Colombian took the opportunity to win the 2017 Tour de l’Avenir, like his compatriots Nairo Quintana, Esteban Chaves and Miguel Ángel López shortly before him, and he was sold to Team Sky. When he joined the British powerhouse, he was not guaranteed to compete in a three-week race in the first year, but he hoped La Vuelta 18 would be his first Grand Tour, to discover this big world at 21 years old. Circumstances precipitated things: 2nd in the Tour de Romandie behind Primoz Roglic (and these two are ready for more this Summer!) and winner of the Tour of California in May, he appeared ready to make his debut on the main stage sooner than expected, while Chris Froome, the indisputable leader of Team Sky at the time, was battling hard at the Giro d’Italia, turning the situation to his advantage at the very end. The Briton needed reinforcement in the mountains, and so instead of waiting for La Vuelta, Egan Bernal was called up for the Tour de France where he was exemplary in the service of Geraint Thomas, who finally dominated the situation, while Froome climbed on the third step of the podium.
The Colombian was not yet supposed to assume leadership on the 2019 Tour. Froome’s terrible fall at the Critérium du Dauphiné put him higher in the hierarchy. He was still behind Thomas at the exit of the Pyrenees but two stages in the Alps propelled him to the top. His career was turned upside down, his personal life too. The 2020 Tour brought him back to the great difficulties of the profession, and, finally, allowed him to return to his initial dream: to shine on the three Grand Tours, which he watched, as a child, on TV, with as much passion for the three. As soon as the victory was assured in the Giro last May, he was asked about the possibility of a follow-up to the Tour de France and the prospect of becoming Olympic champion. “No”, he replied. „My priority now is to win La Vuelta as well.“
„The presence of Egan Bernal is a very important appeal for La Vuelta 21,“ said general manager Javier Guillén. „I want to say, like my fellow Giro organisers this year, that he is finally coming to the start of our race, but we must not forget that he is still very young. Of course, if he won La Vuelta from his first participation, after the Tour and the Giro, that would be historic, but we must not lose sight of the fact that the level of competition is such that it is not won in advance. As he is a very smart boy who keeps his feet on the ground, he knows it won’t be easy. We are obviously delighted to count him among the main protagonists.“