From Münster to Mailand
At the Tour de France 2020, a defending champion in pain had to prematurely abandon the race. Now Egan Bernal is back, fighting for the win at the Giro d’Italia. A visit to the gebioMized headquarter might play a certain role in this success.
Words: Bernd Landwehr, cyclingmagazine.de
For defending champion Egan Bernal, the Tour de France 2020 did not exactly turn out as planned. Instead of fighting for the prestigious Yellow Jersey, he suffered, he had trouble keeping up the pace. And finally, he had to let his competitors go. On stage 15, en route to the Grand Colobier, he lost more than seven minutes to the eventual overall winner Tadej Pogacar. It was over. “I was a little afraid that something like this might happen,” Daniel Schade confesses. “You could see on TV that he didn’t move smoothly in the lower back area. Especially during climbing his pelvis was rotating visibly. That’s when I knew this would not turn out well.”
Daniel Schade is a sports scientist. He knows what he is talking about. For several years he has been working with Bernal and his team Ineos Grenadiers on their sitting positions. Bernal had already been on-site at the gebioMized concept_lab in Münster, Germany in previous years. The company has built an excellent reputation in bike fitting and several top WorldTour teams are among their clients.
After stage 15, Bernal struggled for another two days, before finally leaving the race. He could not bear his back pain any longer. The reason for Bernal’s problems was a leg length difference. He’s had problems for years. But it was at the Tour the France 2020, where they had simply become too severe.
Applying the full range of measures
High loads may put pressure on an intervertebral disc, which causes great pain. “Such problems occur especially at very high intensities. I saw Egan’s movements and the somewhat crooked position of the pelvis,” says Schade admitting, that he as a fitter was suffering with Bernal why watching him in pain.
Since Bernal joined Ineos Grenadiers, he and gebioMized have been working on his problems. Analyses, track tests, riding position, custom made insoles, saddle, cleats – the full range of measures. “It is an ongoing process that was difficult to keep up in 2020,” says Schade. Bernal developed quickly as a rider with Ineos. Also, the problems caused by his leg length discrepancy have continuously been worked on.
“It’s good for Egan if he can build from race to race,” Schade explains, referring to the increasing load that requires tendons, ligaments, and muscles to adapt throughout the season. “None of that worked in 2020. Due to the pandemic the build-up process was disrupted, also regarding our work.”
Developed in the gebioMized fitting lab, approved on the road
On a special “athletes flight” in July Bernal arrived in Europe. And it took just a few races for the problems to become apparent. “Just before the Start of the Tour de France, we tried some adjustments, but unfortunately they didn’t go in the right direction. Then things simply exploded during the race,” Schade calmly admits.
So immediately after his DNF at the Tour de France Egan Bernal paid another visit to Münster. It became a top priority at Ineos’ to get the Colombian Tour winner pain-free and ready to perform again. No effort was spared to get him back on the bike as quickly as possible. “Of course, the most important thing was to find a riding position he could train in again,” says Schade. The full analysis was completed once more, and all possibilities were exhausted.
“There are several adjustment options you can try in case of a leg length difference with intervertebral disc problems. We first determined the status quo, then put all kinds of sensors on him and his bike. In the end, we’d built three different setups in the lab, which we then tested on the road in order to determine the best one,” says Schade. The Münster location does not only offer a laboratory for testing, but also the option to produce custom insoles on the spot.
The advantages and disadvantages of being a pro
The adjustments indeed provided quite some relief, as the Colombian reported back after a few training sessions. Leg length discrepancies are quite common. For cyclists, however, they can quickly become a problem. In a crooked sitting position back problems may quickly arise. “On the bike, pedals and saddle are contact points which is why we measure the pressure distribution on the saddle and in the shoe to detect asymmetries very precisely,” says Schade.
The body tries to compensate the different leg length. “You always have to take a close look and then approximate the optimum,” says Schade. But being a pro does not come with benefits only. Unlike amateur athletes, professionals cannot simply change saddles or use pedals and shoes from other manufacturers. Professional teams are usually tied to their partners.
So, what gebioMized did, was to choose a more comfortable setup for Egan Bernal in the first place. Special training is to help build up muscles. If the training goes as desired, the setup can be tuned more towards performance. In top-level sports finding the ideal position is always a ride on the razor blade, recounts Schade, who has already worked with triathletes such as Ironman World Champions Jan Frodeno and Anne Haug.
When asked about Egan Bernal, Schade is very optimistic. “We might not really see the effects of our adjustments until 2022 or 2023, but Egan is definitely not to be written off for 2021 either,” Schade says confidently. It seems like Bernal paid attention to these words and now delivers. With a win at one of the most prestigious races of the world in sight. And only time will tell, what else this just 24 years old boy from Colombia can achieve in his career.