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Egan Bernal recently announced that instead of defending his Giro d’Italia title, he is planning to go all-in on winning the Tour de France in 2022. This both makes sense for Bernal and once again serves a blow to the sport’s second-best grand tour, which has had to grow accustomed to its winners graduating to the big leagues that the Tour has become.
While most cycling media took this statement to mean Bernal is headed to the 2022 Tour to duke it out with Tadej Pogačar and Primož Roglič, those who read these recent statements closely noticed his Ineos team never actually explicitly revealed their plans to support him in the pursuit of his second-career overall victory by allowing the young star to return to the French grand tour as a team leader. This conflict between Bernal’s public statements that his goal for the season is to focus on the Tour de France and his team’s lack of endorsement of that plan sets up the potential for the 2019 Tour winner to suffer yet another snub at the hands of his team management, while allowing the Giro to win a major start list battle over the Tour, something it is doing less and less of in recent years.
Since riders and teams normally wait until December and January team camps to release their upcoming race schedules, I have to assume Bernal is jumping the gun to send a not-so-subtle message to his team that Tour leadership is key to keeping him on the roster for the 2023 season.
Why Bernal’s Decision Makes Sense
On one hand, Bernal’s desire to skip the Giro and go all-in for the Tour makes sense. He is one of the best grand tour racers in the world and the best riders tend to race the sport’s biggest race, not to mention the fact that he is a former champion of the race, having won it back in 2019.
But on the other hand, it is always surprising when a grand tour winner willingly forfeits their chance to defend their title. For example, since the 2000 Tour de France, 50 percent of the winners have won the race at least once before, 36 percent being back-to-back champions. Bradley Wiggins failing to return in 2013 is the only rider not to return to defend his title while healthy in modern history.
The lack of official endorsement of this decision from his Ineos team can seem surprising, but failing to make public endorsements of riders over team leadership is certainly nothing new for the superteam. Internally, they view themselves as being stacked with interchangeable GC talent and that forcing every rider to fight for their leadership slot up to the last minute will produce the best possible performances. Never mind that this view is somewhat incongruent with reality since it is obvious to everyone on the outside that after their performance at the 2021 Tour, Bernal represents their only real chance to break up the Slovenian logjam at the top-end of the sport. With this fact in mind, Bernal’s rumored discontent with the British team and wish to force a mid-contract move isn’t exactly a surprise.
Why Are There so Few Back-to-Back Giro Winners?
The Giro, which in theory is the second most important stage race in the sport, and oftentimes features the most interesting parcours of the year, rarely has repeat winners, and will often see champions pass on an opportunity to return to win multiple consecutive editions. Since 2000, only 23 percent of champions have been repeat winners, zero riders taking wins consecutively.
Repeat Winners % Per Grand Tour 2000-2021
Tour de France
Percent of winners who had won the race before: 50%
Percent of winners winning consecutively: 36%
Vuelta a Espana
Percent of winners who had won the race before: 36%
Percent of winners winning consecutively: 18%
Percent of winners who had won the race before: 22.7%
Percent of winners winning consecutively: 0%
Last Back-to-Back Champions for Each Grand Tour
Tour de France
Tadej Pogačar 2020/2021
Vuelta a Espana
Primož Roglič 2020/2021
Miguel Indurain 1992/1993
From the data above, we can see that the Giro clearly lags the other two grand tours in the percentage of repeat and back-to-back winners. While the Giro and Vuelta are in the midst of dynasties from two of the best grand tour riders in the modern history of cycling, the Giro’s last back-to-back winner was Miguel Indurain all the way back in 1993. The fact that the Giro not only trails the Tour but also the Vuelta in recent repeat winners, along with having exactly zero riders successfully defend their title, shows the proud race has an undeniable ‘star power’ problem.
The Giro’s Talent Drain
In some ways, having fewer repeat winners and no back-to-back winners could be spun as a positive. After all, variety is the spice of life and no grand tour has more than the Giro. And this lack of repeat winners could be cast as an endorsement of the unpredictable style of racing the Giro creates.
But, there is an undeniable fact that the best stage racers tend in the sport to win multiple grand tours in their careers, and the back-to-back win metric is short-hand for the level of talent a race is drawing. While the Giro has scored major stars like Alberto Contador, Chris Froome, Vincenzo Nibali and Egan Bernal, it was either because the riders were local heroes (Nibali 2013, 2016), facing an uncertain future due to potential doping infractions (Contador 2008 & Froome 2018), or on uncertain form (Bernal 2021). Also, if we look at the all-time list of multi-time Giro winners, we can clearly see that the incidence rate of multi-time winners has dipped since the rise of the Tour de France in the 1990s-2000s.
All-Time Multi-Time Giro Winner List
Part of the issue facing the Giro is the simple fact of when the grand tours fall on the calendar. The Vuelta a Espana has been able to weather the rise of the Tour due to being able to count on attracting any rider with unfinished business at the Tour, and sometimes, even the winner themselves, due to its position as the final major stage race of the season. The Giro’s calendar slot before the Tour makes it an extremely high-risk endeavor for any top rider wanting to target the Tour in just over a month. And with the Tour commanding the vast majority of the sport’s commercial and fan interest, few teams or top riders can afford to take the risk of attempting to target the Giro at the expense of the Tour.
What To Watch for in the Coming Weeks
This is what makes Bernal’s current race program limbo at Ineos so interesting. At 24 years old, he has already won the overall at two grand tours and is the only rider not named Tadej Pogačar to have won the Tour since 2018, yet he still appears to lack the full-throated endorsement of his team. This lack of endorsement is particularly strange since Ineos should have walked away from the 2021 season with the realization that their current grand tour selection strategy is massively flawed. It created a situation where an odd assortment of riders was sent to each grand tour and, outside of Bernal at the Giro, appeared to be outgunned by the best riders. A more careful strategy could have instead yielded a Giro win with Richard Carapaz and Bernal, the only rider on the team able to physically match Pogačar, serving up a legitimate challenge at the Tour.
However, this odd cold-war between Bernal and Ineos team management could send a serious grand tour star back to the Giro to defend his title and potentially give the race its best bet at a star repeating their victory in close to 30 years. While this would be great news for the Giro, it could keep one of the sport’s biggest stage racing talents away from its biggest race for yet another year and would most likely be the last straw in his relationship with his Ineos team. This means the public messaging from Ineos surrounding Bernal’s race plan over the next few weeks will be something to keep a close eye on since it could set off one of the most interesting off-season contract/transfer conflicts we’ve seen in many years.