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…