The stroll up to the Team Ineos hotel in Val Thorens on Saturday night for a conversation with Sir Dave Brailsford was enough to leave you short of breath. This was Europe’s highest ski resort, some 2,300 metres up in the French Alps.
It is same height as the Ethiopian venue Sir Mo Farah favours for his altitude training and only just shy of the town in Kenya, Iten, he used to frequent.
But it is still 350m below the Colombian town from which Egan Bernal hails and where he still lives for most of the year, which is one reason why Brailsford believes he is capable of maintaining the British team’s dominance of the Tour de France for some years to come. At 22, he is the youngest man to win in Paris in yellow since 1909.
Egan Bernal (right) shook hands with team-mate Geraint Thomas (left), who finished second
The Colombian (centre) became the youngest man to win the Tour de France since 1909
Bernal celebrated with a kiss as he embraces his girlfriend Xiomy Guerrero after the race
Colombians have threatened to win the Tour before, with Rigoberto Uran and Nairo Quintana going painfully close. Quintana, it should be noted, is from a town even higher than Bernal’s native Zipaquira, which is to the north east of Bogota.
But from the moment Brailsford clapped eyes on a then 19-year-old Bernal in a bike race, and invited him and his mother to the Giro d’Italia, he identified important differences.
‘A lot of the climbers, and the Colombians, are quite small,’ said Brailsford (Quintana is 5ft 5in).
‘It takes a lot out of them on the flatter days, the run-ins or valleys between the climbs. They are working that bit harder than their counterparts, like Geraint Thomas or Chris Froome. They pay for that.
‘When they want to express their natural climbing ability, they can be blunted a bit with the efforts they have to make between. You’ll never see their pure climbing ability as you might expect.
‘What I liked about Egan was that he is taller. He was always at the front of the race. He was exceptionally good in races like Lombardia, riding on his own.
‘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. So all-round, when we are looking for the next generation to push Chris and Geraint he was the obvious choice.’
Bernal (middle) can dominate the sport for years to come, according to Sir Dave Brailsford
Brailsford credits himself with being the one who made the move. ‘Any team could have had him,’ he said. Apparently for as little as £250,000 a year when he signed for Team Sky two years ago.
At 5ft 9in and 9st 6lb, Bernal certainly has a physiology suited to the demands of the Tour. But Brailsford believes he has the right temperament too.
Bernal grew up under the same roof as parents who only remained together because they could not afford to be apart. It seems young Egan often found himself acting as mediator.
Today he remains close to his parents. His mother gave up work to cook for him and manage his diet. His father is his mechanic and training partner, accompanying him on every ride on a moped. ‘He knows how many kilometres I have ridden to win this,’ Bernal said on Saturday in paying tribute to a devoted dad.
Bernal was overcome with emotion as he lapped up the acclaim of the crowds in Paris
The family arrangement was something that impressed Brailsford. ‘I first saw Egan racing when he must have been 19,’ he said. ‘I brought him to the Giro with his mum, met him there with his agent and talked to him about coming to the team. I wanted to get to know him a bit. You realise straight away that he’s exceptionally mature for his age.
‘I wanted to know about his family background, what his goals were, what he wanted to do, how he saw things. Once you understand how he’s grown up and the way he’s taken responsibility for his family, you realise this isn’t your normal 19-year-old.’
Brailsford recalls a moment at the start of last year’s Tour when Bernal appeared to take exception to a lack of clarity regarding his role, a situation no doubt familiar to those who have served under the Ineos team principal.
‘The hierarchy was Chris, Geraint and him,’ said Brailsford. ‘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”. We went for a walk and he gave me a big long lecture about how next time, if I want him to be the third rider the way I tell him should be a bit different.
“You should do this, that and the other.” I was like, “Wow”. He was saying, “Just be honest with me, be clear, let’s have absolute respect between us”. I was like, “Wow, OK, fair play”.’
Team Ineos came through and as is custom, nobody attacked Bernal (left) on the final day
At 22 Bernal will also speak to his bosses on behalf of other riders. A natural leader, it seems.
‘Egan doesn’t like to see someone hurting or unhappy,’ said Brailsford. ‘He will come and talk to me and say, “So and so is unhappy, I want you to do something about it, I don’t think it’s fair, I want you to take care of him”.’
But Brailsford’s concern on Saturday night was how Bernal will now cope with this life-changing success, with becoming a superstar back in Colombia, and a handsomely rewarded one given the terms of a five-year contract that was signed last year with a major bonus if he won the Tour.
‘Like any 22-year-old he is into things like music and cars,’ said Brailsford. ‘Well he can afford a couple now.’ There are, however, dangers that come with such success.
‘His status in cycling has changed now,’ said Brailsford.
‘When I went to Colombia, Nairo is a superstar, Rigoberto is huge over there. Then it starts to dawn that Egan is potentially the guy who can win the Tour for them. It’s been such a big fabric of their sport’s culture.
Brailsford (left) hopes that Bernal (right) is not distracted by the trappings of fame and fortune
‘I know what the challenges are. The big thing is that the status of his life will change, and at a relatively young age. But he’s got all his 20s to adapt to that. I think it will go one way or another for him. Some carry on and get used to the world they live in and everything they have to deal with and other people don’t.
‘But he’s got a good network around him. And his coach Xabi is really important now. We need to sit down and have a plan.’ The plan, surely, is to keep winning the Tour.
‘Who knows how he will develop?’ said Brailsford. ‘Like for like at his age, he’s pretty exceptional compared to everybody else. But there are a lot of areas he can improve, that’s for sure, not just in pure power terms but in a lot of different areas.
‘But I honestly don’t think he knows what’s hit him yet. I don’t think he has any idea what’s just happened to him.
‘When he won the Tour of Colombia, the place went bananas. I need to think how I can help and guide him over the next six months because it’s not going to be easy for him.’
The easy bit seems to be riding uphill. ‘He’s come downhill to race here,’ said Brailsford.
The Colombian supporters went wild for their compatriot who was sensational throughout