2021 Giro d'Italia winner Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) said that his victory in the corsa rosa has enabled him to regain the kind of motivation and enjoyment of the sport that he lost completely after winning the Tour de France at the precocious young age of 22.
In a revealing and personal winner's press conference, Bernal said that the issues he faced racing in 2020 and 2021 and fighting to be at a top-level again had gone far deeper than 'just' his long-standing back injury.
Bernal referred to the personal pressure he had felt after winning the Tour at 22, as well as the considerable feeling of uncertainty that such an early, massive triumph, had created inside himself.
It was only as he began his battle to win the 2021 Giro d'Italia, he said, that he felt that he had "found again what was lost," with that rediscovery of new motivation enabling him to move on with his career again and succeed. Or as he put it, "I'm back in the game."
It's well-known that when Bernal captured the Tour de France in 2019 at 22 he was the youngest winner of cycling's toughest Grand Tour since 1909. But what emerged early on in Sunday's press conference was that his victory in the Giro d'Italia has also made Bernal the first rider since a trinity of names as illustrious as Felice Gimondi, Gino Bartali and Eddy Merckx to triumph in both the Giro and Tour before their 25th birthday.
However, Bernal replied by pointing out first that while he was unaware of that particular statistic, he knew all too well that he had faced a serious series of personal dilemmas having won the Tour de France so young.
"Handling what it felt like after winning the Tour was really hard, it was harder than to win it," Bernal said, "so winning this Giro is a marvellous thing, an explosion of so many emotions.
"But even so, I'm keeping my feet on the ground. There are so many other riders out there that are racing really well," he said, in an indirect reference to 2020 Vuelta a España and Tour de France winners Primoz Roglic (Jumbo-Visma) and Tadej Pogacar (UAE Team Emirates), respectively. "Knowing that they have done really well keeps me motivated. I've won a great race here, and I'm back in the game."
Asked to define what the problems had been that afflicted him after 2019, Bernal said "a mix of everything. I'd won the Tour at 22 and didn't know what to do with my life. It was everybody's dream, it was like - what now?"
Bernal found himself going through the motions, he said, riding and training but without a genuine sense of purpose behind it.
"I didn't have the motivation to go on winning, the real deep motivation, the kind of determination to say to myself 'ok, I'll set the alarm for eight, I'll do my stretching, do my core work, do my training, do all my work.' I was training, I was doing what I could, the [power output] numbers were good, and I was going really well. But after the Tour, it wasn't the same anymore."
The factors that did not favour him to continue with the same kind of enthusiasm he'd felt before piled up in other ways. He'd had a lot of personal changes in his life, too, he said but more than that, winning the Tour was a very important achievement for his cycling-mad nation Colombia, was "difficult to handle."
"Then on top of that, I got back here" - to race in Europe in 2020 - "and all went well before the Tour. But then I had my back problem, so with one thing and another I couldn't do what I wanted. My doubts started again, about being back on this level, having the willpower to win or not…so with this Giro, I've found something that I've lost again."
Part of that complicated but necessary process of regaining his motivation came after the 2020 Tour when he had a long conversation over dinner with Ineos Team Principal Dave Brailsford in his European base in Monaco. The two talked a lot, he said, and found common ground about how to move forward when it came to re-sparking his enjoyment of racing. "It was about racing on my instincts again", was how Bernal put it, "and I came here to the Giro to do that.
"Dave Brailsford has been the person who most helped me in that process, he told me to go and have fun, to do things like go for a time bonus in an intermediate sprint," as Bernal, to the bafflement of race followers, duly did on one occasion when he and Remco Evenepoel (Deceuninck-QuickStep) duelled each other mid-way through an otherwise uneventful stage 13.
"Brailsford has contributed so much in this victory," Bernal added, "he's a great manager and a great person and I'm very grateful to him."
While Bernal explained that Brailsford was pivotal to his success off the bike, he had words of praise too, for teammate Dani Martinez, whose role in the final mountain stages proved vital to keeping his closest GC rivals, Damiano Caruso (Bahrain-Victorious) and Simon Yates (Team BikeExchange) under control.
"He's a rider who would be a leader in another team," Bernal said. "He was fifth overall in this Giro and that was while he was working for me. This victory belongs to him, too."
Bernal namechecked another teammate when asked to described the toughest moment of the Giro. That moment, he said, "occurred yesterday [Saturday], when Caruso attacked, got in the break and then the gap went up to 50 seconds. I'd had six teammates around me and then in 10 kilometres, I was down to three. We had 50 kilometres left to race. That was hard to handle."
"But [teammate Jonathan] Castroviejo, who has taught me so much, took all the right decisions we needed to help us pull that back."
At the opposite end of the spectrum, two exceptionally pleasant moments stood out in the three-and-a-bit weeks since the race left Turin on May 8th. "One was when we were in the sterrato stage when I knew I had the strength to handle it, the squad keeping me up there and was all around me, I had the leader's jersey on my back… that was very special.
"But then there was also today [Sunday] in the time trial, hearing my trainer on the radio because it was him telling me what to do… how to handle the curves, how many seconds I was leading by… hearing his voice really calmed me down. Those two moments had something."
As for where he goes from here, Bernal confirmed, again, that he'd be looking at racing the Vuelta a España in August. But he played down one Italian journalist's reports of speculation that he might try to win the Vuelta, then having, hopefully, captured all three Grand Tours, retire and turn to journalism in Colombia as an alternative career.
It goes without saying, the whole theory stands or falls on the not-so-automatic assumption that he could triumph in the Vuelta almost without trying, simply because he has taken the other Giro and Tour. But in any case, Bernal simply sidestepped the question and said that having won two of three Grand Tours, "going to the Vuelta and winning all three is very important."
On other parts of the speculation about his future career, he was a little more open. "It's true that I once wanted to be a journalist, but now I think being at home with my partner and my family is very important, too. So many people want more and more, thinking they'll find happiness down that path. But I think you can find happiness in a simple way of life, too."
With that in mind, it's perhaps not surprising that Bernal avoided questions of whether in the future, as has been suggested, he could try to win the Giro and Tour in a single year. "For the moment I'm not thinking about the Tour," he said, "I just want to enjoy this victory, and then rest."
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