Egan Bernal taking his place in Allerød on the start line for the opening stage of the Tour of Denmark on Tuesday was a momentous occasion.
The Colombian entered the race with little ambition other than to finish it, and after spending time working at the front of the pack, he sat down in the final kilometers to cross the line safely around two minutes of the leaders.
“It was a fast stage, but I felt good. I’m happy to finish my first race. No pain and a good feeling, that was the goal,” Bernal told local media at the finish line. “It was good to sit in the peloton, the first 10 kilometers were a bit strange, but then it went well. In the final I didn’t want to take any risks, so I was calm in the last kilometres.
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In any other year it would have been an ordinary day, but having him here on Tuesday is a small miracle.
Just under eight months ago, Bernal was lying on the ground on a Colombian road near Gachancipá after colliding with the back of a bus while training with some of his teammates. Security camera video released later showed the 25-year-old hitting the right side of the bus which had stopped to allow passengers to board and alight.
It was later confirmed that Bernal was riding his time trial bike that day and would have traveled around 60 km/h at the time of impact. The crash came days after he and his teammates suffered a close call with an oncoming car that was overtaking and on the wrong side of the road.
Luckily for Bernal, he was quickly picked up and taken to a local hospital for treatment, but it would be the first step in a long recovery process.
Lots of broken bones
Information on the circumstances of the accident and Bernal’s condition were slow to come out of Colombia. Due to the time difference with Europe, it took several hours before Ineos Grenadiers could confirm the news of the incident, but they gave little more information than that.
It wasn’t until Clinica Universidad de La Sabana, where Bernal was being treated, that we found out the true extent of the injuries and how lucky the Colombian had been. As a result of the accident, Bernal had suffered several broken vertebrae, a broken kneecap, a broken femur and fractured ribs, as well as a punctured lung and multiple other injuries.
He would spend several days in the intensive care unit as he underwent surgeries that would ultimately save his career. In total, Bernal would have five surgeries, two of which were on the spine.
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Those early days were crucial for Bernal as doctors aimed to ensure he would still be able to walk. At the time, ensuring a return to racing was not at the forefront of medical staff’s concerns as they treated the Colombian.
“After having a 95% chance of becoming a paraplegic and nearly losing my life doing what I love most, today I want to thank God, the [Clínica Universidad de La Sabana]all its specialists to do the impossible, my family, [girlfriend], and all of you for your wishes,” Bernal wrote on social media four days after his accident. “I’m still in [intensive care] waiting for more surgeries but trusting in God everything will be fine.
The fact that he was able to move all of his limbs in the days following the accident was a promising sign for those treating Bernal, but there would be a long way to go. Just over a week after the accident, he was released from the intensive care unit and was promptly discharged from hospital soon after. Bernal described the feeling of leaving the hospital as being “born again”.
On February 10, just over two weeks after the accident, Bernal posted a video of himself walking past the family home. He still wore a brace to support the upper half of his body, but he was able to take a few slow, thoughtful steps down a gently sloping ramp.
Determined to make his return as soon as possible, Bernal filmed himself for the first time just over two weeks after the accident. It was on a fully seated bike machine, rather than a bike itself, but it was a start. Although he still used a cane to help him walk, he was finally able to switch to a bicycle equipped with a trainer on March 12.
Bernal rode on open roads for the first time the last week of March, which quickly led to rumors about when he might race again. One of the doctors who treated Bernal, Gustavo Urzia, told the Colombian press that he could be ready to race by the end of May.
However, being medically cleared to run and being fully healthy after suffering such a traumatic incident are two very different things. Ineos Grenadiers were unwilling to throw him away at the first opportunity. It would still take time to build up his form and strength before a race start is possible.
Bernal flew to Europe in early May to start working on it, and he attended a high camp in July with a handful of teammates. The three-week camp was the biggest test of Bernal’s fitness since his accident and the team were happy with what they saw.
“Obviously, without Egan this year, it has made a big difference for us as a team,” Rod Ellingworth, assistant manager of the Ineos Grenadiers team, told VeloNews during the Tour de France. “It’s the biggest hit we’ve taken all year but I think Egan is capable and if I’m being really honest I think Egan has only scratched the surface of what he is. capable. I think he can come back and he’s doing really well at the moment. Hopefully he can do something really special.
Despite his strong runs in training camp, a big lap wasn’t realistic on Bernal’s horizon for 2022. Instead, the team decided to gradually get him back into the running with an easier effort at the Tour of Denmark.
Based on his experiences, there are low expectations placed on Bernal at the moment and he will likely do his best to stay away from risky situations for the foreseeable future, as he did during the Stage 1. Bernal has shown what he can do in training and only time will tell what he will be able to do in the race.