The rookie pro marked his fourth win and second WorldTour triumph of the season with a solo mountaintop victory in Santa Barbara County. With it, he assumed the race lead ahead of Rafal Majka (BORA-hansgrohe) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) as well as three other classification jerseys.
Bernal, 21, and Tao Geoghegan Hart, 23, are fresh faces at Sky but were the embodiment of its trademark style on the slopes of the final 12km Gibraltar Rd ascent, which averaged eight per cent. Sky moved assertively to the front of the peloton as the road wound further upwards, peeling off until Geoghegan Hart was left to tirelessly position his leader for a lone attack some 2km from the top.
“He’s really impressive. I think we saw the work he did in the climb. All the guys, we were in the front and a little bit full gas because he was so strong,” Bernal said of his teammate.
“I’m so happy because the team did a really good job. They had a lot of confidence during the stage and in the final part.”
Despite his age and comparative inexperience to the field, Bernal entered the 157km queen stage as a marked man.
“I don’t feel pressure because I have a really good team here and I was sure they would do a really good job. I just think to attack, I was not thinking about winning the stage, just attack and see what happens,” he said.
“I thought maybe Yates and also Majka could come with me but when I attacked I was alone. In that part, I thought about winning the stage, but before that, I just thought about the attack and to see.”
Bernal admitted that BMC Racing had threatened to interrupt Sky’s execution near the base of the climb, where the race came together, though ultimately didn’t.
“I was thinking maybe one of their guys is in really good condition because they did the first part really hard, and I was a little bit scared,” he said. “But then we controlled all the climb like the plan.”
The broad climber has become stronger and more gregarious since making his professional debut at January’s Tour Down Under in Australia. There he won the best young rider classification and could converse in limited English.
Fast forward four months, as many races, some language lessons and it’s clear in a fluent, English-speaking press conference that the national time trial champion is a powerful force and quick study.
“It’s difficult for me to talk in English,” he mused when praised by an international journalist for his linguistic skill. “Sometimes I’m thinking in English but some words in Italian or Spanish are crossing my mind. But I’m trying.”
Bernal has a 25-second advantage over Majka and 31 seconds on Yates with five days remaining.
The third stage to Laguna Seca features five categorised climbs and while it’s not anticipated to drastically change the overall standings, it does lend to potentially advantageous attacks.