Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) won the 2018 Tour de France and seems perfectly placed to defend his title after 10 days of this year's race, but Gianni Savio is convinced that the Welshman's understudy and younger teammate Egan Bernal will go on to win the 2019 Tour.
Savio signed Bernal to his Androni Giocattoli Pro Continental team on a multi-year contract directly from the junior ranks in 2016 and then helped him develop during two seasons of racing in Europe. Savio knows the 22-year-old Colombian well and visited him during the first part of this year's Tour de France, publicly encouraging him to chase victory.
"Egan can win the Tour de France, there's no doubt about that," Savio told Cyclingnews while at the Tour.
"I almost feel sorry for the other riders Grand Tour riders because we're witnessing the start of the Bernal era. I think he'll win this year's Tour and just get better and better.
"He's still only 22, but he's already reached a physical and mental maturity beyond his years. I've never met a rider like him in my 25 years in the sport. He's a great climber, a good TT rider and he's shown he can even look after himself in echelons."
Savio has always been convinced Bernal's success at the Tour de France was a matter of 'when' rather than 'if'.
"Egan showed his talents right from his first race as a pro," Savio recalled. "He debuted with us at the Tour of Med and finished in the top 10 on the last stage. He then won the best orange young rider jersey at the Coppi e Bartali race in Italy. After he climbed on the podium, I told him, 'You've won an orange jersey but one day you'll have the Tour de France yellow jersey.'"
Savio was tipped off about Bernal's talents by legendary Colombian radio journalist Hector Urrego, and then Italian agent Paolo Alberati revealed Bernal's lab test data, convincing Savio to offer him a long-term contract that included a 350,000 Euro "development bonus" clause.
Bernal turned professional without ever racing on the roads as an U23 rider. His precocious talents helped Androni Giocattoli win the Italian Ciclismo Cup series in 2017 and so secure a wild card invitation to the Giro d'Italia, then Savio 'sold' the young Colombian to Team Sky in exchange for his development bonus.
"I was lucky that he raced mountain bikes and not on the road, otherwise the WorldTour teams would have discovered him and signed him before me," Savio joked.
Just a skinny kid
Bernal twice finished on the podium in the Junior cross country mountain bike world championships, but Savio was still not fully convinced because he was just a skinny teenager.
"I told Paolo Alberati I was looking for a climber and he said, 'This is the guy for you.' But I thought he was too young and dismissed him as still being a 'skinny kid', but Paolo said,'I'll send you the lab tests results of 'the skinny kid' and when you see them, you'll call me straight away.' I saw the test numbers and did indeed call Alberati straight away and quickly got Egan under contract. The rest, as they say, is history.
Savio quickly realised Bernal was special.
"Young riders usually suffer under pressure, but Egan doesn't," Savio said. "He sent me a message the other day before a stage start, and he was relaxed, focused on the racing the Tour, but very relaxed; that's a characteristic of someone special. He's 22, but he's mature. It's as if he was 30 and had raced for years.
"He's always known what he wanted to achieve and how to do it. In his second season with us, he told me, 'Thanks for the way you've looked after me and helped me develop, but I want to join the strongest team in the world.'"
Despite this being only his second Tour de France and the second Grand Tour of his career, Bernal was named joint leader of Team Ineos at the Tour de France alongside Thomas because he won the Tour de Suisse and doubts emerged about the Welshman's form after his winter of celebrations and his crash in Switzerland.
Bernal is currently four seconds behind Thomas in the overall classification and wears the white jersey of the best young rider. But Team Ineos are protecting him from excessive media attention, especially from Colombia, and trying to lessen the pressure and expectations.
Savio agrees with that strategy and has nothing against Geraint Thomas, but he is convinced that Bernal will emerge in the mountains that will decide this year's Tour de France.
"I noticed at the Tour de Suisse that Egan said he'd work for Thomas at the Tour de France if needed; that's a sign he's intelligent and humble, while still ambitious. That's very important and an indication of his greatness," Savio told Cyclingnews.
"Other riders aren't like that and would have made wild claims about leadership. Egan's not like that because he knows he doesn't need to shout his mouth off at the Tour. You'll see in the mountains, his legs will do the talking."
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