Colombian cyclist Egan Bernal is currently hospitalized in Bogota with severe injuries after he suffered one of the worst training crashes in recent memory. Bernal was training with his Ineos-Grenadiers teammates outside of Bogota on Monday when he smashed into the back of an idling passenger bus. His 2022 season—in which he had planned to mount a serious Tour de France challenge to two-time winner Tadej Pogacar—is likely over before it started, though it feels like an afterthought upon learning of the severity of his injuries.
Bernal is conscious, stable, and able to move his limbs, which is the result of an intensive and risky spinal surgery he had at the Clinica Universidad de La Sabana. Bernal suffered a broken vertebra in addition to unspecified “blunt trauma of the thorax,” though neurosurgeons said they were able to preserve Bernal’s neurological functionality after the surgery. Ineos-Grenadiers also confirmed that Bernal suffered a punctured lung, several fractured ribs, a fractured right femur, and a fractured right patella.
Colombian police are reportedly investigating the driver of the bus in the crash, which occurred on a long straight stretch of highway 20 miles north of Bogota. Training on crowded roads in any country is dangerous, and 471 Colombian cyclists were killed by cars in 2021; Bernal and his teammates were nearly swerved into days before Monday’s crash. The Colombian rider was riding his time-trial bike, and though it’s not clear how fast he was going at the time of the crash, the choice of bike and size of the impact suggest that he was probably moving very fast. His teammates reportedly tried to warn him that the bus had moved into their way, but he didn’t hear them. A team car was with the group of riders, and Bernal was able to get swift medical attention. Colombian President Iván Duque was among many who paid tribute to Bernal.
Although Bernal is only 25 years old, he’s already accomplished so much as a professional. In 2019, he became the first Colombian rider in the country’s rich cycling history to win the Tour de France (as well as the youngest of the post-World War I era) when he outgunned the field during two chaotic, mudslide-shortened stages in the high Alps. Bernal suffered through back issues in 2020 before he returned to top form and won the 2021 Giro d’Italia, a performance distinguished by Bernal’s fearless riding on the infamous Tuscan strade bianche. As Bernal was finding his form amid what he described as an intensely painful spinal issue, Pogacar dominated two straight Tours de France and broke Bernal’s record as the youngest modern-era winner. The two young stars have never faced each other at peak form in a three-week race, and this year’s Tour was set to be their first clash.
But even discussing Bernal’s injuries in terms of whether he’ll deliver a satisfying conclusion to the narrative arc of his career doesn’t feel quite right. This is the sort of crash that changes a rider forever, not just in terms of performance but at a much more basic level. Professional racing is an inherently risky pursuit, especially in today’s peloton. To fly down a mountain pass at 60 miles per hour necessarily requires a certain embrace of the risk for catastrophic injury. If Bernal never wants to accept those terms again, it’d be understandable. He could have died on a bike, and as the rider who delivered Colombia its first Tour de France yellow jersey after decades of valiant attempts, his legacy is secure forever if he never takes the start line again. Even if Bernal’s agent Giuseppe Acquadro is already planning for Bernal’s return, there are too many medical contingencies to put stock in what he has to say. That’s what agents are supposed to do.
Elite cyclists have returned to top form after severe leg injuries and severe neurological injuries, though overcoming both to get back to the level prescribed by Acquadro is significantly more challenging. The agent brought up the example of Marco Pantani, who shares the same birthday as Bernal and won multiple Grand Tours after he crashed into a car and broke several bones in his left leg in 1995. Bernal has recovered from serious fractures before, but not of this quantity, all at once. If he does so again, it won’t be for a long time, and even if he doesn’t, he’ll always have his historic 2019 Tour de France triumph. Hopefully Bernal can make the choice for himself.