VAL THORENS, France — 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. At just 22.
Bernal kept the yellow jersey Saturday after the last Alpine stage, and barring a crash or a last-minute health issue he will become the first Colombian to win the Tour when it ends on Paris’ Champs-Elysees with a largely processional stage Sunday. Bernal will also become the youngest post-World War II winner of the Tour.
“Colombia always had great climbers,” Bernal said. “We won the Giro, the Vuelta, but it never happened before on the Tour. For many years we had great cyclists, we never managed to win. It did not work out on the Tour de France. Now we have it.”
Long before Bernal was born, Colombian riders such as Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra conquered the hearts of cycling fans with long and spectacular efforts in the Tour mountains. But for all their brilliance, they never came close to winning the race. More recently, Nairo Quintana twice had to settle for being the runner-up behind Chris Froome because Quintana lacked the time trialing abilities required to overcome the British four-time champion.
This year’s route, the highest in the race history with five summit finishes — including three stages finishing above 6,500 feet and only 34 miles of time trialing — gave Bernal a golden opportunity.
Photo: Christophe Ena / Associated Press
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Unlike Bradley Wiggins, 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 Bernal’s teammate and now deposed champion Geraint Thomas. “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, as the team had in 2012 when the squad was called Sky.
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 at more than 9,000 feet.
A cycling star in the making, Bernal took the race lead Friday when Stage 19 was 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. Bernal had moved away from Julian Alaphilippe, the punchy rider from France who did more than anyone to make this Tour the most exciting in decades and held the race lead for 14 days, on a super-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.
And that put Bernal in yellow.
He wrapped up his victory during Saturday’s Stage 20 to Val Thorens, won by 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali. Shortened to just 36 miles because of a landslide on the route, it featured a 20-mile climb up to the ski station that was too difficult for Alaphilippe, who cracked after starting the day in second place and allowed Steven Kruijswijk to secure a third-place finish overall.
With Alaphilippe losing the yellow jersey on Friday and French rider Thibaut Pinot pulling up with a left-thigh injury, the hard reality finally sank in for France that its 34-year drought without a Tour title will go on.
“It was really incredible,” Alaphilippe said Saturday before the stage. “I’ll not forget the public support.”
The ascent to Val Thorens was certainly not as terrifying as the Pacho, a Colombian mountain Bernal uses as his training ground.
“It’s my favorite climb, a 23-kilometer long ascent at 3,000 meters,” he said. “Every time before I travel to Europe, I go there and test myself. And to me, every time we face a long climb at the Tour, it’s like climbing Pacho. That climb really helped me. I’m gaining confidence when I climb it.”
On the road to Val Thorens, Bernal shook hands with Alaphilippe, who left his mark on the race with his unpredictable attacks and strategies. Throughout the race, Alaphilippe forced the teams of favorites to rethink their strategies as they tried to topple the unconventional Frenchman.
If he wins, Bernal will achieve a feat unmatched by the Tour’s greatest champions. Five-time winners Eddy Merckx, Jacques Anquetil, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain were all older than Bernal is now when they first won.
This season, Bernal was set to get a maiden leader experience at the Giro d’Italia. But he fractured his collarbone in a training crash, forcing him to miss the race and 76 days overall. He returned to competition in June to win the Tour de Suisse, another prestigious title to add to his success at Paris-Nice in March.
“All I know is if I had not crashed before the Giro I would not be in that position,” Bernal said. “After riding the Giro at (age) 22, it would have been impossible to recover and to be in this position at the Tour. Things happen for a reason.”
Samuel Petrequin and John Leicester are Associated Press writers.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/At-22-Egan-Bernal-all-but-secures-Colombia-s-14190588.php.