As the countdown to the Giro d'Italia start begins to be measured in hours, not days, Ineos Grenadiers leader Egan Bernal says he will debut at the Corsa Rosa determined to leave the events of 2020 behind him.
The events surrounding Bernal's disastrous Tour de France last year, brought on by the the effects of a chronic back injury, have been discussed and debated ad infinitum in the last nine months.
But the Colombian now makes his long-awaited debut in the Giro d'Italia, put on hold after a training accident saw him miss the race in 2019, in a mood of cautious optimism, and determined to get the 2020 monkey off his back for good.
Whether Bernal will succeed in doing that is one big question for the Giro. Another much more short-term question concerning the Colombian star is how much of a challenge handling a notoriously frenetic Grand Tour like the Giro d'Italia after six weeks without racing could prove to be.
"I think we made the right choices about that, " Bernal told reporters in a press conference on Thursday morning. "I raced a lot in the first part of the season, but then I went to Colombia to spend time at altitude, which is what I and my trainer, Xabi Artetxe, was what we thought we needed."
Bernal had an impressive early spring which, if winless, most notably saw him take fourth in Tirreno-Adriatico and third in Strade Bianche, this following a second place in the Trofeo Laigueglia and an impressive display of climbing at the Tour de Provence on the mist-enshrouded Mont Ventoux stage.
But if he was in the thick of the action in the off-road segments and finale of the Strade Bianche, the 24-year-old was not as much of a decisive factor in the 'Race of Two Seas'.
"Strade Bianche and Tirreno-Adriatico are very different races," Bernal argued. "I'd wanted to do Strade for a couple of years and I was very enthusiastic about it. But in Tirreno, I'd not done any specific training, I still had some back pain."
In any case, while striking the same cautious note that saw him warn that his back injury could still shape his Giro earlier this week, the Egan Bernal of May 2021 is raising the bar enormously when compared to the Egan Bernal of this March.
"I still want to regain the same kind of confidence I felt before 2020," Bernal said on Thursday. "I'm working very hard for it, what happened last year was not easy, and I need to find that old sparkle and confidence. So I'm very motivated but it's still a long process.
"I've done some difficult races this year and now I hope to do a three-week Grand Tour well. But we have to remember the back problems, too, so I'm taking this on the day-by-day."
The idea Bernal is making a voyage into the unknown in Italy this May is further underlined by his comparatively scant reconnaissance of the Giro's key stages. Following Strade Bianche this spring, he went to check out the stage 11 off-road sections, and later reconned the Alpe di Mera third week mountain trek as well. But that's it.
Keen to use the race to hone his physical form as well as trying to get back the old level of self-confidence, Bernal said he "hopes that it's good for me that the last week stages are the hardest. But I need to be careful right from the start, stages like the opening individual time trial are where I could lose time too."
"The Giro is a very special race, you never know what can happen on any particular stage. You've got to stay attentive."
That typical Giro unpredictablility has notably increased across the board in racing in recent years, too, largely thanks to cycling's generations of young stars like Bernal and their much less conservative attitude to racing.
That trend was already visible, Bernal argued, at the 2019 Tour de France when he and Julian Alaphilippe were "more aggressive, like when I attacked long-distance in the Alps. So things have changed, it's different to when Chris Froome won the Tour with his team keeping things under control at the front of the bunch."
"These young guys aren't so scared to attack from far; they have not got so much to lose. A race can change in a moment."
But as he tackles the fourth Grand Tour of his career with some key questions to resolve, Bernal will, at least, be racing on some well-trodden terrain in the first few days of the Giro. Piemonte, the region where the Giro starts, is his old stomping ground from his early days as a pro with Androni Giocatoll-Sidermeci, and the Turin Grande Partenza is a mere 50 kilometres from where he first lived in Europe.
Another small but significant element in the Giro d'Italia 2021 will be familiar to him, too. The Colombian will also be starting, as he did the 2020 Tour, with the number one on his back – "thanks to Tao" – he said with a wry chuckle.
"That's also a responsibility, so I hope we'll do well. I have to try to honour this number."
Thank you for signing up to Cycling News. You will receive a verification email shortly.
There was a problem. Please refresh the page and try again.