On Sunday, in a dramatic sense of timing, Team Sky announced the signing of Egan Bernal. The Colombian prodigy had just crossed the line on the final stage of the Tour de l'Avenir, wining the race in the process with one of the most assured and dominant performances in the race’s recent history.
"Team Sky are delighted to announce that Tour de l'Avenir winner Egan Bernal will ride for Team Sky from next season," the statement read.
“His victory at under 23 cycling's most prestigious race has cemented his reputation as one of the brightest prospects in cycling, having quickly amassed an impressive palmares in just two years as a pro."
Compared to the impressive ease in which Bernal had sewn up the race – and his back-to-back stage wins in the mountains – it was quite a sober statement from the British team.
Bernal built his race victory on the first mountain stage to the top of the Col des Saisies on stage 6 when he attacked six kilometres from the finish, despite a quite significant headwind. He finished a minute ahead of his opponents and the Belgian Bjorg Lambrecht, a neo-pro for Lotto-Soudal next season, was so blown away by Bernal's superiority that he said: "He will win overall by at least five minutes."
The following day Bernal’s all-Colombian team controlled the race and the race leader won again in Sainte-Foy-Tarentaise, ahead of Lambrecht no less. On Sunday’s final stage Lambrecht didn't try to turn the race to his advantage.
"Bernal was too strong. I was already happy I could follow him," he said.
The final victory margin was 1:09 to Lambrecht and 1:12 to Dane Niklas Eg, but it seemed Bernal could have crushed the race if he had wanted to.
"It's like a dream," he said afterwards. "I was doubtful I could do it..."
"The only way to have beaten him would have been a terrible day or a puncture," said one of his rivals.
It's fair to say no Tour de l'Avenir winner has dominated the race in such a way since his fellow Colombian, Nairo Quintana, in 2010. Miguel Angel Lopez (2014), another Colombian jewel, now racing at Astana, and French riders Warren Barguil (Sunweb) and David Gaudu (FDJ), who wore the maillot jaune in 2012 and 2016, respectively, were strong but nothing like the cool, calm and collected Bernal.
Team Sky's statement over signing Bernal broke an open secret about a transfer that had been rumoured all summer. Gianni Savio, Bernal’s team manager at Androni-Giocatoli-Sidermec and who supported the rider as a spectator last week in the Alps, hesitated between protection and excitement when discussing the move to Team Sky.
"He is only a child but he is the next great that everybody was expecting," he said.
Savio's protégé has a background quite different from most of Colombia’s rising stars as he comes from mountain biking. Bernal, who started cycling aged nine, took silver at the Junior World Championships in 2014 and bronze the following year before completely switching to the road. A neo-pro in 2016, he captured the best young rider's classification at the demanding Giro del Trentino and Settimana Coppi e Bartali, finishing fourth at the Tour de l'Avenir. He stepped up this year again with a 16th place in Tirreno-Adriatico, and with a solid domination at the Tour des Pays de Savoie, a 2.2 race where he could hone his climbing skills.
"Bernal is obviously smart, very strong in the mountains and there's room for improvement," Savio told Cyclingnews.
Physical ability and a past in mountain biking are not the only unconventional aspects to Bernal, who also considered quitting cycling to become a journalist. The few media who have spoken to him say he is a good talker and a thoughtful athlete. Asked about his transfer to Sky he said: "I can learn a lot through the team. It will be a good place to keep improving. I would like to do nice things, step-by-step, without any pressure."
The golden child of Zipaquira - a city 48km north of Bogota - might race his first Grand Tour in 2018, although his calendar is not yet finalised. He is insistent that "once again, patience is everything".
"Above all, I don't want to be one of these riders who perform very well at 22 or 23 years and then disappear around 27," he said.
Team Sky seem to share the same agenda as his contract runs until 2020, but the British squad is also under pressure to find the next Tour de France winner after 2018 – many riders believe next season will be the last one where Chris Froome might be able to race at his best level. Sky is ready to pay a lot of money to secure new talents.
Cyclingnews understands that they gave 'significant compensation and support' to Androni in order to sign the Colombian. He was under contract for one more year with an annual salary of €100,000 - four times more than the minimum wage of a neo-professional at a Pro Continental team. But nothing is too much to pave the way to the Tour de France.
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