Sir Dave Brailsford sang the praises of Egan Bernal after he became the first South American to win the Tour de France on Sunday.
The 22-year-old beat last year’s champion and Team Ineos team-mate Geraint Thomas into second place, with Brailsford claiming Bernal is the best rider he has ever worked with at his age.
“Yeah, yeah, viva Colombia! Tour de France, what more could you want?,” said the Ineos team chief. “We’ve got a new champion, a new ambassador, what a brilliant ambassador for Colombia is Egan Bernal.”
Geraint Thomas expects victorious Team Ineos to return to next year’s Tour de France even stronger with Chris Froome targeting a record-equalling fifth Tour title.
With the celebrations still going on after Egan Bernal made it seven wins out of the last eight for the British-registered squad, Thomas was looking forward to 2020, when Ineos could send their strongest line-up ever.
Froome missed this year’s race – and a shot at a record-equalling fifth Tour title – after suffering serious injuries in a horror crash on a recon ride at the Criterium du Dauphine in June.
It remains to be seen if the seven-time Grand Tour winner can get back to the level required to compete at the highest level again – or how the team would marshal their resources if he does – but Thomas expects to see him on the start line in Nice next year.
“You know what he’s like,” Thomas said of the 34-year-old Froome. “When he’s not on his bike, all his attention has shifted to his rehab and it’s remarkable to see how quickly he’s improved. Hopefully I’ll get a chance to go and see him and catch up soon.
“Next year’s Grand Depart for the Tour is in Nice, which is just down the road from where we train.
“If all three of us are there on the start line – me, Froomey and Egan – jeez, we’re going to have some questions about leadership.
“But the other teams will have to answer those questions on the road. We’ve always been honest, clear and communicated with each other, so it will be great to have that strength next year.”
Thomas arrived at this year’s Tour as defending champion but had to settle for second place, a bittersweet result considering it was at least a team-mate that took victory instead.
Despite any disappointment he may feel about surrendering his crown Thomas – who was clear on Saturday night he believes he can win the Tour again – said anyone suggesting he might be over the hill only inspires him.
“I don’t read it, although certain stuff filters through to me and it spurs me on,” he said.
“To be honest, I’m a lot closer to the end than the start: Me and Egan are on separate spectrums, but it’s great to be having this success.
“I’ve had my Olympic success and it’s pleasing to have some more on the Tour de France.”
The sight of Sir Dave Brailsford and his team toasting success on the Champs-Elysees is a very familiar one, but this is the first victory as Team Ineos since Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s takeover in May.
At the start of the year, what was Team Sky did not know if they had a future beyond this season, but though they have faced questions over the environmental impact of their new paymasters’ business operations, Thomas now believes they have a bright future under Britain’s richest man.
“Obviously that wasn’t the best time,” Thomas said of the uncertainty. “But it’s amazing that we should find such a great boss to come in and take over the whole thing.
“You would never know that Jim is worth billions and billions: He’s just a genuine guy who loves his sport and it’s great that he’s backed the team and left us to carry on what we’d been doing before.
“I speak to him quite a lot – I sent him a quick video when I was in the back of one of the commissaires’ cars with a bottle. I promised I wouldn’t overdo it and I was only having the one.”
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.”