Egan Bernal can’t walk very far in this corner of the world without getting flagged down by somebody who wants his attention, but the first Colombian to win the Tour de France has long since accepted that it’s best to wear that burden lightly.
When a member of the Tour Colombia’s security detail tried to shepherd a small group of journalists away from him on Tunja’s Plaza de Bolivar on Sunday – “Por favor, caballeros!” – Bernal politely waved away the offer of sanctuary. “No, no, leave them here,” he said. “It’s fine.”
The loudest cheers at the subsequent team presentation were, of course, for Nairo Quintana, who grew up barely five miles away in Cómbita and who was serenaded as he celebrated his 34th birthday and marked his return from a year on the sidelines after his positive tests for Tramadol.
Bernal’s appearance on stage, however, was the event’s climax. Although Ineos elected against participating this time out, Bernal was the last man on stage as the leader of the Colombian national team, and he enters buoyed by a strong showing at last week’s National Championships.
His bronze medal there was his first podium finish of any description since he won the 2021 Giro d’Italia. More pertinently, it was also his most notable display since the life-threatening crash he suffered in training near Bogotà just over two years ago. Or, as Bernal put it poignantly after the medal ceremony, “I felt like the Egan of before.”
That iteration of Bernal won the inaugural edition of this race in 2018 and then placed fourth in the two following years when he ascended to the very summit of his sport. His performance last week, not to mention the dearth of contenders from beyond Colombia and Ecuador, places him firmly among the favourites here, even if he preferred to set himself a more abstract target.
“The objective is to enjoy it, I think,” Bernal said on Sunday. “At this point in the season, it’s difficult for me to say I want to finish first or second or third. The most important thing is to enjoy it, like I did in the National Championships.”
“I’ll give the best of myself, and then I’ll see where I am and if I’m recovering well. It’s hard to say [more] now.”
This time twelve months ago, Bernal’s spirited showing on the Alto Colorado at the Vuelta a San Juan had augured well for his comeback only for a knee injury to force him out of the race the following day. His 2023 campaign would endure another setback…