Sir Dave Brailsford believes Egan Bernal is the best rider he has ever worked with at his age.
When the 22-year-old crossed the finish line in Paris on Sunday, Bernal became the youngest winner of the Tour de France in over a century.
He stood on the top step of the podium in only his second Tour, only his second Grand Tour, having ridden an intelligent three-week race which belied his tender years.
Now, like everyone else, Ineos team principal Brailsford is wondering how much more there might be to come.
“Like for like at his age, he’s pretty exceptional compared to everybody else,” he said.
Brailsford was hoping to find the next Chris Froome when he paid Gianni Savio’s pro-continental team Androni Giocattoli-Sidermec £250,000 to buy out Bernal’s contract at the end of 2017.
The youngster had jumped off a mountain bike and gone straight on to the road with the Italian team, skipping the junior level, and delivering victories in prestigious races like the Tour de l’Avenir.
At 5ft 9in and 60 kilograms, Bernal fits the profile of a pure climber, but his slight frame hides a huge engine – comfortable in a time trial and not giving anything away on the flat.
Laboratory tests conducted in 2015 found Bernal has a VO2 max – a measure of the body’s maximum energy consumption – of 88.8. The same year, Froome underwent tests which found a VO2 max of 84.6, equivalent to 88.2 at his Tour weight.
It was clear Bernal had the full package as a cyclist.
“I thought: mountain bike background, good bike handler, tall, powerful on the flats, team time trial, develop his individual time trial over the years and he can climb like stink,” Brailsford said.
“All-round, when we are looking for the next generation to push Chris and Geraint, he was the obvious choice.”
But having the physical attributes is only half the package in the Tour de France.
The mental strength to manage efforts and gauge attacks is key, as is the maturity needed to handle the will of a passionate nation like Colombia.
Bernal grew up fast at home in Zipaquira. Born into relative poverty, he first learned to ride a bike on a hand-me-down.
When his parents split up, neither could afford to move out of the family home and so they lived in different rooms, with the young Egan becoming the mediator of the household.
Bernal later used the money from his first contract to buy his mother a flat, and now both his parents are part of his back-up team – his mother working on his nutrition while his dad, a former security guard, joins him on training rides on a scooter while working as his mechanic.
“Once you understand about his family and how he’s grown up and the way he’s taken responsibility for his family then you realise this isn’t your normal young man,” Brailsford said.
Brailsford himself got a sense of that after naming Bernal in last year’s Tour team, where he was to ride in support of Froome and Thomas.
Bernal was excited by the opportunity but felt Brailsford had not been clear to him when explaining what his role would be.
“When we arrived at the start he came to see me and said, ‘Can we go for a walk? I want to talk to you’,” Brailsford said.
“I was a bit (surprised) but, ‘OK’. We went for a walk and he gave me a big long lecture about next time, if I want him to be the third rider then the way I tell him should be a bit different.
“‘You should do this, that and the other’. I was like, ‘Wow’. ‘Just be honest with me, be clear, let’s have absolute respect between us’.
“Maybe it’s language, assumptions we had made but there’s that knock on the door and I was like, ‘Wow, OK, fair play…'”
Bernal went on to serve both Thomas and Froome brilliantly in that Tour while somehow finishing 15th himself.
Brailsford, realising what he had on his hands, persuaded James Murdoch to sign off on a five-year deal.
It was extremely unusual in cycling but then so is Bernal’s talent.
Now he is a Tour winner, the main challenge may be managing expectations.
“Who knows how he will develop,” Brailsford said. “He might be at the top of his curve now. He might progress, we don’t know. But there are a lot of areas he can improve, that’s for sure, not just in pure power terms, a lot of different areas.
“Honestly I don’t think he knows what’s hit him yet.”
Egan Bernal wrapped up Tour de France victory when he cycled down the Champs-Elysees on Sunday.
Here, PA takes a look at the race in numbers.
2 – days in yellow for Bernal, the fewest of any winner since Cadel Evans took the jersey on the penultimate stage in 2011.
14 – Days in yellow for Julian Alaphilippe, whose remarkable and unexpected run changed the way the Tour was raced.
4 – Different riders to wear yellow in the Tour. Alaphilippe took it off the shoulders of Mike Teunissen on Stage 3 and lent it to Giulio Ciccone for 48 hours after Stage 6, before Bernal took over with two days to go.
0 – No stage winner was declared on the weather-shortened Stage 19 to Tignes, which means that although he is now a Tour winner, Bernal does not yet have a stage victory to his name.
15 – Different winners of the 19 stages in which an individual winner was named. Only Caleb Ewan, with three, and Alaphilippe and Simon Yates with two each claimed multiple wins.
4 – Stage wins for Jumbo-Visma, Lotto-Soudal and Mitchelton-Scott, the most by any of the teams.
40.44 – Bernal’s average speed in kilometres per hour, according to data captured by the tour’s official technology partner NTT.
101.5 – the highest speed recorded by NTT was 101.5kph, by Team Katusha-Alpecin’s Nils Politt during Stage 18.
316 – Peter Sagan’s haul in the points classification, substantially down on last year’s 477 but still comfortable enough, as he won the green jersey for a record seventh time – and seventh out of the last eight.
22 – Bernal is the youngest winner of the Tour in a century, and the third youngest winner in history, at 22 years and 196 days.
3,372 – distance in kilometres raced, with 37km cut from the end of Stage 19 and 71 taken off the start of Stage 20 due to adverse weather and landslides in the Alps.
91 – The gap in seconds between Bernal on the top step and Steven Kruijswijk in third. It is the smallest margin between those on spots the podium in the history of the Tour, beating the 122 seconds between Lucien Aimar and Raymond Poulidor in 1966.
60 – weight in kilograms of Bernal.
155 – riders to reach Paris, out of the 176 to start. Cofidis’ Nicolas Edet was the first to leave the race due to illness on Stage 6. Team Sunweb were the only team to lose more than two riders (Cees Bol, Wilco Kelderman and Soren Kragh Andersen) as the Tour saw the fewest dropouts in its history.
2,770 – metres of altitude at the summit of the Col de l’Iseran, the highest point of the race and one at which Bernal moved into yellow as bad weather forced the shortening of Stage 19.
10.2 – visitors, in millions, to the race centre on the Tour’s official website over the course of the three weeks.
It was a moment to cherish for Egan Bernal on the road to Paris before Caleb Ewan won stage 21 of the Tour de France on the Champs-Elysees.
Australian Ewan came from well back in the pack to outsprint Dylan Groenewegen and collect his third stage win of the Tour as the sun set over the Arc de Triomphe at the end of the 130km stage from Rambouillet.
Just behind, Bernal crossed the line alongside team-mate and last year’s winner Geraint Thomas to secure his first Grand Tour victory in only his second career three-week race.
Bernal, who took the yellow jersey on Friday’s weather-shortened stage 19 in the Alps, becomes the first Colombian winner of the Tour and, at 22 years 196 days, the youngest winner in more than a century.
Thomas collected second place to give Britain a 10th podium finish in the history of the race, while Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk secured third place.
As the traditional procession into Paris began from Rambouillet to the west of the city, Bernal was congratulated first by Julian Alaphilippe, who animated the 106th Tour as his aggressive start and dogged defence was rewarded by 14 days in the yellow jersey and, it was announced on Sunday, the Super Combatif award for the most aggressive rider.
Celebrations started from the Ineos team car with Bora-Hansgrohe’s Peter Sagan – who won the green jersey for a record seventh time – doing his best to photobomb.
Bernal’s victory continues a remarkable run of success for Sir Dave Brailsford’s team, who have now won seven of the last eight Tours and – including the 2011 Vuelta a Espana title awarded to Chris Froome earlier this month following Juan Jose Cobo’s doping case – 10 Grand Tours in all since their formation in 2010.
For once Brailsford’s team did not dominate a Tour which will be remembered for Alaphilippe’s remarkable run in yellow, but they were always next in line for when the Frenchman did – as expected – finally crack in the Alps.
Although Thomas had been best placed to take over for much of the race, Bernal made moves in the Pyrenees to take back time he had lost in the time trial, and then had the best legs in the Alps when it really mattered.
He took yellow on Friday’s weather-shortened stage 19, having attacked on the climb of the Col de l’Iseran, the highest point on the Tour. Sir Jim Ratcliffe, whose buyout of what was Team Sky earlier this year secured the team’s future, was watching on the from the team car as Bernal celebrated victory.