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 on 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 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. More recently, Nairo Quintana ended up runner-up twice behind Chris Froome but lacked the time trialing abilities required to overcome the British four-time champion.
This year’s route, the highest in the race’s 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.
“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.”
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 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 59 kilometers (36 miles) because of a 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.