Egan Bernal (Ineos Grenadiers) has closed down rising speculation that he would head to the Tour de France this July after successfully completing the Giro d’Italia, adding that fear of overloading his back muscles means he is also unlikely to take part in the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Bernal is currently dominating the Giro d’Italia, which he has led for over a week and where he has now won two key mountain stages. He has a commanding 2:24 advantage over closest rival Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Victorious), while Ineos Grenadiers appear to be the strongest team in the race and capable of controlling their rivals during the final stages.
Speaking on Tuesday morning before his rest day training in the Dolomites, Bernal explained that his participation in the Olympics hinged on whether he felt he could put his long-standing back injury under further pressure after the Giro d’Italia.
He effectively ruled out the Tour de France, saying that Ineos Grenadiers already had a solid line-up for July. After seeing how his back recovers after the Giro d’Italia, Bernal could ride the Vuelta a España as part of his program for the second half of the season.
"I think I won’t go to the Tour, I think guys who are now in the Tour team can do really well," Bernal said.
"I prefer to just focus on the second part of the season, maybe ride La Vuelta. I’m not sure about the Olympics because I still have problems in my back."
Ineos Grenadiers already have a dauntingly powerful line-up for the 2021 Tour de France, including 2018 winner and 2019 runner-up Geraint Thomas, former Giro d’Italia winners Tao Geoghegan Hart and Richard Carapaz, and 2020 Tour podium finisher Richie Porte.
Bernal said that the prospect of him doing a Giro-Tour double some time in the future was not impossible, but would depend on a number of factors.
"It’s an honour to hear that (I could win the Tour and the Giro in the same year). It would depend a lot on the routes in each one and how I recover in the time between. I’d have to talk it through with the team, I’d need their full support. But for now I have to focus on winning this Giro and maybe another year I’d have the opportunity or the motivation to try to do that."
Bernal recognised that his back injuries that cost him so badly in last year’s Tour de France had not disappeared entirely, but the way the pain affected him during each stage of the Giro varied notably, lessening as the day’s racing progressed.
"I’m not going to line, it still hurts me sometimes, more than anything up to half way through than at the end of the stages," he revealed.
"It worries me because this could be affecting the lower back and all that area. [But] we are doing physiotherapy every day and I think it’ll hold up for the rest of the race, I don’t think the pain will suddenly go off the scale. So I’m confident all will be well until then."
However, he was notably cautious about making future plans regarding the Olympics because of his back pain, arguing that he did not want to put his body under pressure to get to Tokyo at 100 percent.
"If I can see I’m not at 100 per cent and I would hurt myself to do that, then I won’t go," he stated categorically.
Bernal and Ineos Grenadiers have so far managed his back pain to ensure he can race at 100 percent. He suggested that it has been thanks to carefully planned build-up and training under the guidance of coach Xabi Artetxe.
Bernal did not race between Tirreno-Adriatico in March and the Giro d’Italia, preferring to stay in Colombia for a long spell of training.
"We took the right decisions at the right time, changed a few things, and I have to thank my trainer," Bernal said of Artetxe.
"He organised everything and knew what to do about altering the training programme when the pain came back. He even helped me mentally because to be building for a Grand Tour and then stop training for a few days isn’t that easy. I think we did it well."
Despite three major mountain stages still to race, Bernal’s domination of the Giro is now so clear that he received no specific questions about his rivals and only one about how much time he would need to hold them off in the final chrono in Milan, in theory his weakest point in what is left to race.
This year’s Giro d’Italia is his to lose but he seems confident he can triumph in Milan on Sunday afternoon.
"I think it should be enough with the time I have," he said. "Of course, I’m not a specialist, but to lose 2:30… that’s not hard, but I think if everything goes normally I should hold onto this advantage. I hope so."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. Apart from working for Cyclingnews.com, he is also the cycling correspondent for The Independent and The Independent on Sunday.
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