Egan Bernal has joined a growing list of big-name riders set to make their 2021 season debuts at this week’s Étoile de Bessèges in France after the Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana in Spain was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to L’Equipe, the Colombian will join Geraint Thomas and Michał Kwiatkowski in the Ineos Grenadiers line-up for the five-day stage race, with the British WorldTour team due to confirm their line-up on Monday.
Vincenzo Nibali (Trek-Segafredo), Pascal Ackermann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and the AG2R Citroën duo of Greg van Avermaet and Oliver Naesen have also made the change in programme, with others likely to do the same as teams opt to give the few racing opportunities to their team leaders.
Bernal has not raced since September, when he abandoned the Tour de France after stage 16 due to severe back pain. He later revealed that a leg length imbalance had lead to scoliosis of his spine. During the time off his bike, Bernal worked hard to treat his problem and also underwent a careful assessment of his bike position.
He said he was able to ride without pain three months after leaving the Tour de France and has recently upped his training intensity while at home in Colombia. He returned to Europe in late January after the Colombian national championships were postponed due to the pandemic and has been training intensely with teammate Ivan Sosa at their new base in Monaco in the south of France.
“I feel good, I’m super motivated,” Bernal said in a recent interview with La Gazzetta dello Sport. “I haven’t raced for almost four months. I’m counting on starting again in early February, even if I won’t be at my best.”
Teams have been forced to make difficult decisions about their early-season race rosters after a growing number of early-season races were postponed or cancelled. These include the Tour Down Under, the Vuelta a San Juan, Challenge Mallorca, the Vuelta a Andalucía, and the Volta ao Algarve.
Despite growing concerns in France about the spread of a new variant of the coronavirus, races have, for now, been given the green light. Aurélien Paret-Peintre (AG2R Citroën) won Sunday’s GP La Marseillaise in the south of France, with the Tour de la Provence scheduled for February 11-14. Only the Clásica de Almería remains on the early-season Spanish calendar, with the sprinters’ race set for February 14.
The Volta a la Comunitat Valenciana was postponed less than a week before the start, sparking a ripple effect in teams. The domestiques and younger riders get bumped from a race to make room for team leaders. It bolsters the start lists, as we have seen for Étoile de Bessèges, and especially the UAE Tour later in February, but it leaves lots of riders without races.
“That’s not nice, because if Greg and I go to the French races, we’ll take the places of the riders who were selected for there,” Naesen said last week. “Nobody wins in this story, but the Classics are very important to AG2R, especially this year, so the leaders get priority.”