Egan Bernal

Egan Bernal wins Tour de France, first Colombian, youngest since WWII

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PARIS — The skies over Paris were yellow, ignited by a glorious golden sunset.

The partying fans’ shirts were yellow, Colombians making themselves at home on the Champs-Elysees.

But the yellow that counted most was the iconic jersey that fit so snugly on the slim shoulders of Egan Bernal.

His crowning Sunday as the Tour de France’s youngest post-World War II champion, and its first from South America, heralded the birth of a new supernova in the cycling universe.

Winning a Tour for the ages at the unusually young age of 22 immediately prompted the question: How many more might he win?

Get this: He’s younger than the Tour’s greatest champions — five-time winners Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx, Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain — all were when they were first crowned. Pity those in the peloton who also hope to win future editions of cycling’s greatest race: They could be in for quite a wait.

“I am the most happy guy in the world. I just won the Tour de France, and, yeah, I can’t believe it,” Bernal said, looking bemused on the podium in the race winner’s jersey and silhouetted by the splendid sunset.

The slightly built Colombian with a killer instinct on the road proved to be the strongest of the 176 strong men who roared off from the start in Brussels, Belgium, on July 6 on their 3,366-kilometer (2,092-mile) odyssey that delivered the most absorbing, drama-packed Tour in decades and confirmation that the prodigy Bernal is the real deal.

Riding a yellow bike, and cheered by Colombian fans who were partying even before he rattled up the cobblestones of the Champs-Elysees, Bernal crossed the line with his teammate Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion who this year finished second. Steven Kruijswijk completed what Tour organizers said was the tightest podium in the 116-year history of the race, with just 1 minute, 31 seconds separating first and third places after three weeks of racing.

The 21st and final stage was won in a sprint finish on the famous avenue by Australian Caleb Ewan, the dominant sprinter of his first Tour with three stage wins. Keeping with race tradition on its final day, the 155 riders who survived the Tour rode at a pedestrian pace and in a joyful atmosphere before hitting the Champs-Elysees. Bernal chatted with French rival Julian Alaphilippe and raised a glass of champagne as he rode.

At the finish, Bernal fell into the arms of his family.

“I cannot believe it. It’s just incredible. I am sorry. I have no words,” he said through a translator. “I still can’t understand what is happening to me.”

TOUR DE FRANCE: Full Standings

Tearful Colombians celebrated their new hero.

“When I saw that he won, I said, ‘I need to go with my music to support him,’” said clarinet-playing Colombian fan Sebastian Cortes, who traveled from Strasbourg in eastern France for the celebration.

But millions of French fans who had lined the roads through east, central and southern France, and up into the thinning air of the Pyrenees and Alps, were ruing a bitter-sweet Tour.

First, their hearts soared with fabulous racing from French riders Alaphilippe, who held the iconic yellow jersey for 14 days, and Thibaut Pinot, who won on the first of seven 2,000-meter-plus (6,500-feet) peaks scaled by the highest Tour in history.

But joy turned to sorrow when Alaphilippe and Pinot’s prospects of becoming France’s first winner since Hinault in 1985 were cruelly dashed just two days before the grand finale in Paris, on an epic Stage 19 where Mother Nature became a party-pooping guest. An almighty dump of torrential rain and hail severed the Tour route just as Bernal was succeeding in ripping the race lead off Alaphilippe, who’d clung to it like a kid with a favorite toy.

“Julian Alaphilippe made us dream,” said Celestin Simon, a Parisian who cheered his hero on the Champs-Elysees in a pointy hat of French red, white and blue. “Unfortunately, there’s no victory at the end.”

Alaphilippe, more than anyone, first ignited and then stoked what will long be remembered as a Tour of fireworks. With his goatee beard and can’t-catch-me attacks that rivals couldn’t match, Alaphilippe embodied “panache,” the old-school class so cherished by Tour fans.

Alaphilippe’s enterprise first put him in yellow in Champagne country on Stage 3 and then, after he lost the lead on Stage 6, got him the jersey back on Stage 8, which he held through the Pyrenees and into the Alps.

And it was there that Bernal, raised at altitude in Colombia and at home in thinner air, struck.

Bernal flew up the Tour’s highest climb, the dizzying Iseran pass at 2,770 meters (9,088-feet) above sea level, demolishing what remained of Alaphilippe’s lead on Stage 19 and building a sizeable one of his own =.

The watch was then stopped, with Bernal way ahead, when the hailstorm suddenly coated the route with ice, amid fears that riders on tires barely wider than their thumbs could skid off into the rock- and ravine-scarred Alpine décor.

Compounding the misery for France, Pinot abandoned the race in tears, hobbled by a left-thigh muscle tear.

And that was that. The Tour that had been careening to a rock ‘n’ roll finish instead had the plug pulled on it. Landslides also truncated the last Alpine Stage 20, which still proved too long for the by-now exhausted Alaphilippe, who slipped off the podium entirely, despite getting words of encouragement in a call the previous night from French President Emmanuel Macron.

Thomas used the last Alpine climb to secure the runner-up spot in Paris, giving the Ineos team a podium 1-2 with Bernal. Third-placed Kruijswijk, a Dutch Mr. Steady, pulled off the feat of being wholly unremarkable during the three weeks, while Alaphilippe, Pinot and Bernal and others rocked.

Quite remarkably, none of the top four riders won a stage. Alaphilippe, in fifth, won two.

“Honestly, I prefer having won two stages and 14 days in yellow than doing nothing and finishing third,” Alaphilippe said Sunday.

So instead of a red-white-and-blue celebration, Paris instead got painted in Colombian red, blue and yellow.

Lots and lots of yellow.

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Egan Bernal set to ride to victory in Tour de France

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VAL THORENS, France (AP) — 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 will 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 will 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 like Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra conquered the hearts of cycling fans with long and spectacular raids 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 and only 54 kilometers of time trialing, gave natural born climber Bernal a golden opportunity.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

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 Bernal’s teammate and now deposed champion 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.

Weighing only 59 kilograms (130 pounds), the super-light 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 2,770 meters.

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 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 and on course to become the first Colombian to win the Tour.

Bernal wrapped up his victory during Saturday’s Stage 20 to Val Thorens, won by 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali. Shortened to just 59 kilometers (36 miles) because of landslide on the route, it featured a 33-kilometer 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.

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 Frenchman.

“I don’t think it was the parcours (race route), it was the fact that Alaphilippe started so strongly, had a good advantage and was so strong,” Thomas said. “It was incredible how he stepped up and improved. A big, big well done to him. He fought until the very end. Fair play to him and his team. That was the reason why the race was raced so differently.”

Ineos was not as dominant as in previous years and, in addition to Alaphilippe’s bold moves, had to deal with challenges mounted by Thibaut Pinot’s FDJ and Kruijswijk’s Jumbo Visma. With new dynamics, the race was filled with suspense until Bernal stamped his authority for good in the Iseran.

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 — who were all older when they first won.

Bernal has also proved stronger than Thomas, who threw his weight behind the Colombian heading into the penultimate stage. Bernal and Thomas crossed together in Val Thorens, with the Welshman warmly congratulating his successor.

Bernal has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top. With barely any experience in road racing, he turned pro with the small Androni Giocattoli Pro Continental team before Ineos manager Dave Brailsford signed him two years ago following his victory at the Tour de l’Avenir, the most prestigious stage race for Under-23 riders.

After competing at his first Tour last summer and doing an impressive job in support of Thomas and Froome, 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.

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Tour de France shortens decisive stage due to weather

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The violent weather that forced an early stoppage of Friday’s Stage 19 of the Tour de France has also forced organizers to re-route and shorten Stage 20, the last chance for anyone to shake up the standings.

Colombian rider Egan Bernal, who took the yellow jersey Friday in addition to his firm grip on the white jersey as the Tour’s best young rider, will have an easier-than-expected task Saturday, with only one climb on a route of 59.5 kilometers (37 miles). The day’s racing was originally scheduled to be more than twice that far at 130 kilometers (81 miles), with multiple opportunities for the rest of the tightly packed group at the top of the overall standings to attack.

The good news for France is that Julien Alaphilippe, who was in tears yesterday after losing his yellow jersey in the midst of a descent that played to his strengths as a technical rider, now has more of a chance to remain on the podium. Alaphilippe’s demotion was one of two sad events for the host nation on Friday — contender Thibaut Pinot withdrew with a thigh injury.

But the remaining climb is still a difficult beyond-category trek to Val Thorens. Cyclists will spend 33.4 kilometers on an average grade of 5.4% on the way to a height of 2,365 meters (7,759 feet).

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

And the top five riders all have a legitimate shot at the podium, if not the win. Alaphilippe, who was expected to give up the yellow jersey when the Tour hit the mountains but climbed better than expected, is 45 seconds behind Bernal. Defending champion Geraint Thomas (Great Britain) is next at 1:11 behind, with Dutch rider Steven Kruijswijk and German rider Emanuel Buchman also within two minutes of the lead and 45 seconds of the podium.

Sunday’s final stage is traditionally a ceremonial ride to Paris in which no one attacks the yellow jersey.

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