Having already taken podiums at both the Colombian National Championships road race and time trial, reigning Tour de France champion Egan Bernal kicks off his stage race season in his home country at the Tour Colombia 2.1 next week, the first step on the road to a defence of his 2019 Tour de France title.
The Team Ineos rider was recently nominated for the 'Breakthrough of the Year' prize at the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards – held on February 17 – after his triumph. The 23-year-old follows in the footsteps of teammate Geraint Thomas, who was nominated the previous year.
Speaking to Spanish newspaper AS ahead of the Tour Colombia 2.1, Bernal was enthusiastic about his nomination, citing the importance of his successes to his native country.
"It's very important because the awards have a worldwide prestige," Bernal told AS. "I am super proud to represent my team, country and the rising athletes. To be among those talents is important.
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"In Colombia, we have many social problems and my victory in the Tour was able to give them a break and inspire many people. Sport unites us and provides opportunities for many of our compatriots. It motivates me to do things well for Colombia."
Bernal finished fourth in the Tour Colombia 2.1 last season, having won the race the previous year. This time around, though, his participation comes after a very different pre-season to the last.
His preparations for 2019 were hampered by his recovery from a crash suffered at the Clásica San Sebastián, which resulted in several serious facial injuries. He would return to racing before the 2018 season was out, but doctor's appointments set his winter back.
"It's been much calmer," Bernal said of this winter. "Last year, because of the fall, I suffered at the end of the season, I spent a lot of time visiting doctors because I lost several teeth.
"I feel that the preparation has been much better and is all focused on the Tour de France. That will be my first and only serious goal. The other races will be geared towards that goal."
After his sub-standard preparation last season, Bernal went on to win Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse en route to taking Colombia's first-ever Tour de France victory. His rivals, then, will have even more to worry about with a full-strength Bernal heading into 2020.
There will be more of those this time around, though, not least among his own team. Chris Froome will return, having missed the Tour last year after his brutal crash at the Critérium du Dauphiné - although it's debatable what kind of form he'll return to - and 2018 winner Geraint Thomas will make it an Ineos triumvirate in a formidable field.
"The last two years we were always two leaders; this time there will be three. But the strongest has always won. In 2018, the first option was Froome and Thomas won, and last year it was Thomas, and I won," Bernal said.
"The important thing will be that the team supports us in the flat stages and then the race will put everyone in their place. Personally, at the moment, I'm not too worried. I can only focus on my own thing and that is to get to 100 per cent.
"Froome had a very strong fall and it sucks to be in a situation like that, not knowing if you are going to ride again. I don't think of him as a rival, but as a person, and I wish him all the best."
Bernal noted the increased strength of Jumbo-Visma, who will head to a "more explosive" Tour with Primož Roglič, Tom Dumoulin and Steven Kruijswijk among their ranks. They are slated to be Ineos' main rivals – Bernal admits that – but the British squad has hired reinforcements, too, with Rohan Dennis and Richard Carapaz signing up for 2020.
"Richard, Rohan – the team is going to be very strong. But Jumbo-Visma has also put together a good roster. And Ineos should not only be valued for the quality of its riders, but also for its staff and its way of doing things. They are intelligent when it comes to managing each rider's season."
The upcoming season, is, of course, an Olympic year too. Bernal has already said that he'll do his best in Tokyo, but that the Tour de France is the one and only goal for 2020, something he reiterated.
Then there's the Giro d'Italia and Vuelta a España, the latter of which exists as an outside possibility for 2020 after the former was ruled out given the priority afforded to the Tour.
"Out of respect for the Tour, and as a winner, it was very difficult to consider not going," Bernal said. "At one point I though I'd go to the Giro too. That was the only doubt. But this year, being an Olympic year, it was difficult to bring the two races together because there's a week less to recover. I had to focus on the Tour out of respect.
"The Vuelta is a race I've wanted to do since I signed with Ineos. In 2018, I had it scheduled and, although the team did not see it clearly, I pushed hard to go but then I fell in San Sebastián and was frustrated. Last year, before the start of the Tour, I planned to go to Spain later, but as it turned out and because of how worn I was, we backed out. Now I don't know. We'll see what happens. It's always in my plans.
"The most logical goal is the Tour. The Olympics are a week later. It's not the best time, and I don't do so well in one-day races. I'm not going to penalise the Tour for a race I'm not a specialist in, even if the route suits me."
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