Perpetuating the tradition of great Colombian climbers, Egan Bernal left his mark on the Tour de France in the mountains. But unlike his flashy predecessors, he is also poised to win cycling’s biggest race.
Bernal kept the yellow jersey Saturday after the last Alpine stage, and barring a crash or a last-minute health issue, he would become the first Colombian to win the Tour when it ends on Paris’ Champs-Elysees with a largely processional stage on Sunday.
At age 22, Bernal would also become the youngest post-World War II winner of the Tour.
“I still need to reach Paris, but today it was incredible, I can’t believe it. I will need some more days to understand what happened to me,” Bernal said.
Long before Bernal was born, Colombian riders such as Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra conquered the hearts of cycling fans with long and spectacular rides in the Tour mountains. But for all their brilliance, they never came close to winning the race.
This year’s route, the highest in race history with five summit finishes, including three stages finishing above 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) and only 54 kilometers (34 miles) of time trialing, gave natural born climber Bernal a golden opportunity.
Unlike Bradley Wiggins, four-time champion Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas — the three other riders who won the Tour for the British outfit Ineos — Bernal is not a race-against-the-clock specialist. He has built his success on consistent performances in the Pyrenees and a tremendous attack in the Alps after losing ground in the individual time trial.
“The talent is there to see, he was born to go uphill fast,” said Thomas, Bernal’s teammate and now the deposed champion. “He has got many, many great years in front of him. A very bright future.”
Thomas, lagging 1 minute and 11 seconds behind overall, should finish runner-up to give the Ineos team a 1-2 finish in Paris.
Weighing only 130 pounds, Bernal thrived in rarefied air, and it was fitting that he delivered his fatal blow in the Col de l’Iseran, the Tour’s highest point this year.
A cycling star in the making, Bernal took the race lead Friday when Stage 19 was dramatically cut short by a landslide across the route to the Alpine ski station of Tignes and by a violent hailstorm that made road conditions too icy for riders racing on two wheels barely wider than their thumbs. He’d moved away from Julian Alaphilippe, the punchy rider who did more than anyone to make this Tour the most exciting in decades and held the race lead for 14 days, on an extremely difficult climb to the Iseran.
When the race was then stopped with Bernal racing away on the downhill, organizers decided the riders’ timings to the top of the Iseran climb would be used to determine the overall standings.