20-year-old Colombian climber Egan Bernal is set to step up to WorldTour level in 2018, with Team Sky, Movistar and Bahrain Merida in competition to pay Androni Giocattoli a special 'development fee' so they can have him on their roster and perhaps help him develop into the next Nairo Quintana or Sergio Henao.
Bernal justified why he is so highly sought on the final stage of the Tour of Alps on Friday, going on the attack over the summit of Monte Bondone and so taking the best young rider's jersey from Britain's Hugh Carthy. He wisely opted against an all-out solo attack to try to win the stage, preferring to ride a smart race with teammate Rodolfo Torres.
Torres attacked on the final Novaline climb near Trento and was only pulled back by a serious chase by the other riders in the select front group. Bernal finished seventh in the sprint finish and was ninth overall, 1:02 down on winner Geraint Thomas (Team Sky). Bernal and Torres' efforts gave Androni Giocattoli second place in the team standings behind just BMC, and gave the Italian team some precious points in the season-long Coppa Italia series that will award a wildcard place for the 2018 Giro d'Italia.
Bernal has the calm and quiet confidence of Quintana.
"I'm very happy with my ride today and with taking the best young rider's jersey," he told Cyclingnews after the podium ceremony.
"I didn't think I'd be able to stay with the best climbers over the Bondone because I hadn't been as strong as them on the other climbs. But today I was even able to attack over the top of the climb. When I got a gap I was unsure what to do; I could have taken some risks on the descent and then tried to stay away on the flat roads in the valley. But I knew it would have been difficult to stay away. So I decided to descend fast but also wait for the others.
"My teammate Rodolfo Torres attacked hard on the final steep climb and so I tried to block a bit to help him and stayed on the wheels. I finished with them at the finish and that gave me the white jersey ahead of Hugh Carthy who was further back in chase group. It was a great finish to the race for us."
Bernal was signed by Androni Giocattoli after winning a bronze medal in the 2015 junior mountain bike world championships, with team manager Gianni Savio cleverly agreeing to a four-year contract. The astute Italian manager is now ready to cash in his ‘premio di valorizzazione' – ‘development fee' – clause for helping Bernal develop into a much-sought road racer.
Bernal is reported to have a VO2max of 88.8. He has yet to win a professional race but has quickly shown his climbing ability with a series of high placings, including seventh overall at this year's Tour de Langkawi and second at the recent Giro dell'Appennino.
"I think a win will come. I don't know if it'll come this year, next year or even in five years. I'm only 20 years old and so I've got time to win something big. I just hope to do well, be consistent and learn as quickly as possible."
Bernal is not afraid of stepping up to WorldTour level with Team Sky, Movistar or Bahrain Merida. He is quietly spoken, modest but also intelligent.
"I've developed well thanks to Gianni Savio, my agent Giuseppe Acquadro and everyone else who has helped me. It's a dream just to be a professional and be racing in Europe with an important team like Androni Giocattoli," he said.
"Now I've got a chance to go to a WorldTour team in the future, with some of the biggest teams and I still can't believe. We'll see what happens in the future but I know I've got a great chance to have a successful career. I hope it all happens."