Tour de France 2019

'Great future' for humble Bernal

Colombian fans cheering for Tour de France leader Egan Bernal during the final stage from Rambouillet to the Champs-Elysees in Paris yesterday.
Colombian fans cheering for Tour de France leader Egan Bernal during the final stage from Rambouillet to the Champs-Elysees in Paris yesterday.PHOTO: REUTERS
Tour de France leader Egan Bernal during the final stage from Rambouillet to the Champs-Elysees in Paris yesterday.
Tour de France leader Egan Bernal during the final stage from Rambouillet to the Champs-Elysees in Paris yesterday.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Colombian, 22, will mark changing of guard at Team Ineos with Tour victory

PARIS • Egan Bernal grew up at altitude and starred in this year's Tour de France on the highest slopes, but he learnt to ride his bicycle in the foggy forests around his home town.

He grew up 42km north of the Colombian capital of Bogota in Zipaquira, a mining and agricultural town, which sits at an elevation of 2,650m in a valley surrounded by mountains.

Bernal was set to become Colombia's first Tour winner early this morning and, at 22, the youngest champion since 1909. Results of the final stage of the race were not available at press time.

As a child, he took up cross-country biking and trained in the nearby woods under the guidance of Fabio Rodriguez, a Zipaquira native who had ridden in the Spanish Vuelta, before Pablo Mazuera Zambrano became his first manager.

It is a blue-collar town, where the roar of a chainsaw is as common as the chirping of birds, with young men earning their living by cutting down trees, and Bernal has never forgotten his humble roots.

On Saturday night, Bernal dedicated his success to Zambrano for encouraging him when he was struggling to make it as a professional.

FINE PROSPECTS

He's got many years of success ahead of him, a humble guy with a great future. I would have loved to have won but there you go, the fact a teammate won makes it easier.

GERAINT THOMAS, on Egan Bernal.

He said: "At one point, I stopped riding. He told me to try. Thanks to him, I'm riding a bike. He's guilty."

Financial pressure almost forced him to give up cycling, despite a silver in the world junior cross-country championships in Norway in 2014 and a bronze in 2015 in Andorra.

Zambrano told AFP: "He came from a very low-income family. He started at university, in media studies. He got a scholarship.

"He wanted to quit because he wanted to be a journalist."

But things turned for Bernal when he was recruited by Italian Gianni Savio, who needed a climber for his Androni team.

After two promising years, Team Sky, now Team Ineos, swooped to buy out his contract for €250,000 (S$380,000) in August 2017.

"He's a good person," Savio told AFP. "He has kept the humility he had when he joined our team."

Last month, Bernal won the Tour of Switzerland, but insisted the victory did not change his supporting role at Ineos behind last year's Tour champion Geraint Thomas.

But in the aftermath of four-time champion Chris Froome being ruled out after suffering multiple fractures in a crash at the earlier Criterium du Dauphine, they decided they would instead have "two leaders".

In the 1980s, Colombian rider Fabio Parra finished as high as third in the Tour while compatriot Luis Herrera won the 1987 Vuelta.

In recent years, Nairo Quintana, winner of the 2014 Giro d'Italia and the 2016 Vuelta, and Rigoberto Uran have finished on the Paris podium.

Santiago Botero and Mauricio Soler have also won the polka-dot "King of the Mountains" jersey, but no Colombian had yet finished first overall in the Tour.

His victory will mark a changing of the guard at Ineos.

As Sky, they won six of the last seven Tours with Bradley Wiggins (2012), Froome (2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017) and Thomas.

All are British and all were over 28 when they won their first Tour, unlike Bernal.

However, he has "the physique of someone older" and as Thomas admitted "the talent has been evident for all to see".

The two-time Olympic gold medallist said: "If my experience is anything to go by then he's got an amazing year ahead of him and it's been an honour to be part of this.

"To be honest I didn't think Egan was going to win this year, but... he's got many years of success ahead of him, a humble guy with a great future. I would have loved to have won but there you go, the fact a teammate won makes it easier."

Last year, Bernal was the loyal domestique to Froome and Thomas, always the last man pulling the Sky leaders up the steepest slopes.

After he then finished 15th overall, team boss Dave Brailsford called him "the man of the match".

His prowess in the mountains was not to be denied a year later.

Bernal was able to take advantage of the altitude in the three alpine stages peaking at 2,770m on the Col d'Iseran, where he took the overall lead on Friday.

As Quintana put it succinctly, "we (Colombians) live at 2,700 metres".

Bernal has also shown he has nerves of steel to go along with his "exceptional talent".

His Tour seemed lost after an unusually poor time trial in Pau when he dropped 1min 36sec to France's Julian Alaphilippe on July 19.

"It was the worst day of my career," Bernal said.

Eight stages later, he would bask in the moment in Paris.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2019, with the headline ''Great future' for humble Bernal'. Print Edition | Subscribe