Declared free from COVID-19 this week, Egan Bernal's first post-isolation engagement was a big one: a meeting with the Pope.
The recently-crowned Giro d'Italia champion was received by Pope Francis in the Vatican on Wednesday morning, and came bearing gifts.
He gave the Argentinean head of the Catholic church a signed pink jersey from his Giro triumph, along with a customised Pinarello bike, painted in the colours of the Argentinean flag. The bike, which displayed the Pope's coat of arms on display on the top tube, was offered as "a gift from all Colombians".
Hailing from a family of catholics, the meeting meant a great deal to the 24-year-old.
"I've had many experiences in my life but this is the most beautiful one I've had. I wasn't expecting his presence to be like that. It was an incredible moment," Bernal said, according to Spanish news agency EFE.
"I'm very happy. It's the most important experience of my life - more so than winning the Giro and Tour. It's unique."
Bernal was accompanied by the Colombian ambassador to the Holy See, Jorge Mario Eastman, along with his girlfriend, María Fernanda Motas, alongside whom he received a blessing from Pope Francis.
The Pope, who received a visit and a bike from Peter Sagan in 2018 and from a number of other riders in the past, reportedly noted how quickly Bernal rides uphill, jokingly asking how many coffees he has before a race.
"This was a thousand times more stressful [than a Grand Tour]," Bernal said. "I didn't know what to say to him. I had some words prepared, but I was very nervous, although once we started talking it became easier."
Bernal will return to Colombia later this week in a delayed homecoming celebration, having tested positive for COVID-19 five days after winning the Giro and having spent 10 days in quarantine in Monaco.
He will not ride the Tour de France and is expected to return to Europe to target the Vuelta a España in August. Victory there would make him the eighth rider in history to win all three Grand Tours, and while he affirmed his desire to make his Vuelta debut, he stopped short of confirming it will be this year.
"I've always said it and I mean it. There are the three Grand Tours, it's the triple crown, and I hope to be able to win the Vuelta to complete it. I'm missing the Vuelta, and it would be a dream. That would be really incredible for me and for the sport in general."
La bici que Bernal ha regalado al Papa Francisco 😍😍 https://t.co/UqL2cYWbvUJune 16, 2021
Hoy el Papa ha saludado a @Eganbernal Egan Bernal, ganador del Tour y del Giro. El campeón le ha regalado una bici y una camiseta. "Cuando uno está a punto de partir en una etapa clave es cuando uno más se encomienda a Dios. Por lo menos yo lo hago", ha contado Egan. pic.twitter.com/rKs9XF587CJune 16, 2021
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