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by Iain Treloar
July 28, 2019
VAL THORENS, France (CT) – In Tignes, Egan Bernal looked down at the stuffed lion in his hand, the bouquet of yellow flowers cradled in his arm, and shook his head gently. In that moment, he realised – or began to realise, or maybe didn’t quite realise yet at all – that he was about to win the Tour de France.
Minutes before, behind the barriers of a stage finish that never happened, Bernal stood, a boyish figure in Ineos kit, his maillot blanc covered by a long-sleeved team-issue jersey. Around him was a swirl of cameramen and confused spectators and white-polo-shirt-wearing ASO staff, each trying to make sense of one of the most bizarre days in cycling history.
Adrift in the chaos, Bernal looked a little lost until he saw some familiar faces in the madness around him, finding a moment of peace in words from his father, German. Then, the embrace of his partner, Xiomy. The two nuzzled into each other’s necks like a pair of swans.
And so, Bernal turned, was ushered up the steps behind the stage, and walked into a future that would be forever different.
Egan Bernal’s journey to Grand Tour contention has been brief and fast-tracked. At the start of 2018, he joined Team Sky, plucked from the Italian pro-continental scene midway through a contract with Androni. In May 2018, Bernal won Tour of California, and two months later, he made his Tour de France debut as a key climbing domestique. The youngest rider in the race, he finished a surprising 15th overall, showcased his strength setting up Geraint Thomas for the win, and began being spoken of as a future Grand Tour winner.
After a breakthrough win at the 2019 Tour de Suisse, followed by Chris Froome’s season-ending crash last month, Bernal’s chance for leadership came sooner than anticipated. Bernal started the 2019 Tour de France as the co-leader of the most dominant Grand Tour team of the decade, and still only the second youngest rider in the race.
For the first two weeks, Bernal bided his time, sitting comfortably in the top ten since stage two. He followed the moves on La Planche des Belles Fille and looked a better bet than Thomas on Tourmalet. Tomorrow, he will roll down the Champs Elysees wearing the yellow jersey, and in the process, deliver Colombia a yearned-for first Tour de France title.
The Tour over the last week was raced in a furnace, finally giving way to angry towers of cumulonimbus clouds looming over the Alps. Bernal, having soared free on the Col de l’Iseran, added to his lead on the descent. And then, the storm broke, sending drifts of hail and billows of mud across the road. “I [did] not know what happened,” Bernal said in Tignes yesterday. “I was going at full speed … I attacked and [was] then told to stop. No! Not now!”
Bernal finally pulled to a shellshocked stop, halfway down a mountain and 40km from the stage finish, as the Tour de France’s new leader.
Which takes us back to Tignes, to an unfinished stage but a deserving leader. In the post-podium press conference, under bright lights in front of a wall of sponsor logos, Bernal wept, then dropped his head into his hands and sobbed. Slowly he looked up, a bewildered smile spreading across his face.
And why not? How do you begin to process an event so momentous, following an event so strange? From racing down a mountainside to being teleported by car to a jersey, a press conference and a probable Tour de France win at 22 years of age?
As Bernal topped the Col de l’Iseran, before stage 19’s cancellation, a Colombian journalist in the press-room in front of me reached into his backpack, pulled out his national flag, quietly tied it around his neck, and crossed himself.
A day later, at the startline in Albertville, Egan Bernal wore a yellow helmet, yellow-accented sunglasses, and cycling’s most coveted jersey. “It’s crazy, it’s crazy,” he said, his hand shaking slightly. “You dream about this as a kid.”
Two hours later, Bernal rolled across the finish line of the Tour de France’s final mountain stage at Val Thorens, 4th on the stage, 1st on the GC, alongside Geraint Thomas. The Welshman told media afterwards that he’d offered the following advice to Bernal as they crossed the line: “Enjoy it. Soak it all up. Don’t worry about crying … all real men cry.”
In those final moments of the stage, as Bernal closed on the line, the Colombian radio host in the press marquee after the finish spoke of the significance of this victory to a nation that worship its riders. “Now we can forget all the wars, all the narco trafficking, all the bombs. Today Colombia takes on a new look. Its name is Egan Bernal,” he yelled, his voice cracking. “Please God, my voice can’t fail me at a time like this…”
At the podium presentation, over the boom of the Tour de France instrumental sting, two people to my left, an ecstatic Dave Brailsford yelled Egan’s name. They locked eyes for a moment, exchanging a thumbs up. 20 metres to my right, Bernal’s partner Xiomy stood quietly, smiling, eyes locked on Egan. Next to her stood Bernal’s father. Across the road, spread across a mountainside behind a barrier and a scrum of photographers all desperate to get the shot, was a heaving mass of yellow, red and blue, all chanting: “Campeón, campeón, Bernal es campeón.”
On the podium, Egan Bernal, a little stunned, shook his head gently in disbelief.