“I met him when he was 11 years old and he was already a champion,” says Pablo Mazuera. Pablo is sitting in Val Thorens watching on a screen as the child prodigy he uncovered in Colombia a decade ago, Egan Bernal, rides up the mountain beneath us wearing the yellow jersey. A moment later he tails off and just stares at the TV, wide-eyed. “I’m sorry, I’m just so happy to be watching this!”
Pablo was in his 20s working as an audio engineer when he stumbled into cycling through a friend. “It was an accident, but I’m glad about that accident,” he says. He set up the Mazuera Foundation near Bogata which took promising cyclists from underprivileged backgrounds and gave them a chance to ride and compete. Bernal was in the first batch of kids to sign up.
“He called me his father in cycling,” says Pablo. “I was his mentor until he came to Europe aged 18. It was hard for him to get involved with the sport, to get all the things he needed to make it, the equipment, the bicycles, the travelling. The foundation started with Egan… actually I’m gonna show you a photo when I met him…”
Pablo open his laptop and swivels it around to show me a picture of the pair of them in the woody hills around Bernal’s hometown, Zipaquira. An 11-year-old Bernal is wearing an orange and white cycling jersey and looks happy, grinning at Pablo as his coach pulls a face.
Bernal had begun cycling three years earlier when his dad took him out riding on weekends. One day there was a local race in the town and eight-year-old Egan wanted to enter, but his dad didn’t want him to compete. A friend signed him up, gave him a helmet, and of course he won. “He was a champion his whole life, even as a little child in Colombia,” Pablo says.
Bernal’s father was a security guard at the local reservoir and his mother worked both as a maid for local families and as a cleaner in the town. “His family are very good people – organised and educated, taking into consideration that they come from very low-income lives,” Pablo says. A journalist and friend of Pablo’s, Sergio Camilo, is sitting beside us. “Egan’s family were really humble,” Sergio says. “I wouldn’t say poor but they were really working hard. It’s hard for kids like him growing up in Colombia.”
Coaching Bernal wasn’t always straightforward. He was outrageously talented but he was intense too, with a deep focus which made Pablo uneasy.
“I had to be very hard with him,” Pablo says. “He was difficult to treat. He was always straight in his personality, not difficult, not discipline problems, but he was always hard to guide. He was always going like this [Pablo hunches up his shoulders] his whole life, very tight. When you are a kid you need to be more relaxed, to treat things more like a game, because if you get to your cycling life when you are very young and you’re taking things so seriously, you will be bored when you get to professional.”
Back on the screen, Bernal has reached the top of the mountain. He will go to Paris wearing the yellow jersey, and 24 hours later he will ride down the Champs-Elysees as a Tour de France champion, aged only 22, the youngest for a century. His is Colombia’s first winner, 34 years after Luis Herrera first raced here.
“Back in the day, when Colombians won a stage or a mountains jersey there were huge parades back home,” laughs Sergio. “So I think it’s going to be really, really crazy. I think maybe Egan doesn’t like being in the spotlight but the whole country is talking about him. They love him since he was a kid.” If Bernal was hoping to slip back into Colombia unnoticed, he might be out of luck. “He will be carried from the airport to the city in a fire truck,” says Pablo.
Bernal walks into the media centre minutes after sealing his first yellow jersey and takes the stage for his victory press conference. He thanks his teammates for their hard work, his dad for riding on a motorbike for mile after mile as he trained, and he thanks Pablo too. “Pablo Mazuera, I started riding because of him,” says Bernal. “He was my first coach. He was the first part of my cycling life. He said to keep riding one more year when I wanted to stop.”
Just as Bernal is wading through a throng of photographers and reporters to depart, he spots Pablo and gives him a long hug. For that 11-year-old boy grinning in the hills of Zipaquira, it has been quite a journey.
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