By Martyn Herman
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – Colombia’s latest Tour de France contender Egan Bernal looks so young, one reporter asked him if he knew who Belgian great Eddie Merckx was on the eve of the Tour de France on Friday.
Considering the race starts in five-time champion Merckx’s home city of Brussels on Saturday it was as well he said “yes”.
Bernal is only 22, and will be the second youngest rider in the 176-strong field, but after winning Paris-Nice this year and following up at the Tour de Suisse he arrives as joint leader of Team Ineos with defending champion Geraint Thomas.
Team boss Dave Brailsford, who has masterminded the Tour triumphs of Bradey Wiggins, Chris Froome and Thomas under the team’s former Sky logo, was emphatic when asked whether the man from Zipaquira was too young to join that celebrated list.
“You have a mental age, a physical age, experience etcetera, but if you’re ready, you’re ready, and he’s ready,”
Luke Rowe, who will be Ineos’s captain on the road over the next three weeks, said Bernal, who impressed in the mountains last year on his Tour debut, boasts the same attributes as four-time champion Froome, who is out following a serious crash.
“Egan is a natural leader. He is a guy I will put everything on the plate for and commit for because he is a leader,” Rowe told reporters at team hotel. “He has this personality.”
One of the Tour favorites, experienced Dane Jakob Fuglsang said this week he believes Bernal’s inexperience will be exposed over three brutal weeks, especially with the spotlight on him.
But Rowe has already seen enough to be confident the youngster has what it takes.
“I remember the first time I worked with Froomey I was amazed, he had this pitbull mentality. He just wanted to get out of the bus and rip the legs off people,” Rowe said.
“That kind of tenacious mentality, Egan has that. So, I think Jakob is wrong. But let’s see the road do the talking. It’s easy to say he’s flying, but let’s see.”
Rowe says Bernal’s performances this year suggests he already has the skillset of a much more experienced rider.
“He is older than his years and he has won three World Tour stage races, Tour of California, Tour de Suisse and Paris-Nice, In Paris-Nice he covered everything from time trials, sprints, crosswinds and mountains,” he said.
“In Switzerland every time he attacked he got the gap straight away and never got caught. Then in the last stage he rode conservatively and took no risks.”
Bernal, whose high-altitude upbringing will hold him in good stead in the third week of the Tour when the route regularly goes above 2,000m, will have plenty of back-up from the likes of Tour veterans Rowe, Michal Kwiatkowski and Wout Poels.
“I am pretty young to be a GC rider but I come from a team with a lot of experience and for me it’s a little bit easier when you have team mates who you can just follow and they will put you in a good position,” he said.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Chopra)