Egan toast – fanatical Colombian fans have a winner at last
For more than a decade they have been coming. With their distinctive yellow, red, and blue flags, loud horns and distinctive chants, you can never miss the fanatical Colombian supporters at the Tour de France.
They travelled from the cycling-mad nation praying Rigoberto Uran could deliver a Colombian Tour victory, then Nairo Quintana became the great hope.
But how many of them came to France this summer expecting that 22-year-old Egan Bernal could be the first?
Bernal may be a wunderkind, but in the Team Ineos grand plan, he was only a ‘maybe’ to even ride the Tour, and if he came, it was supposed to be in a support role.
Three crashes changed the his destiny.
First his own, on a training ride in Andorra, ruled him out of the Giro d’Italia in May, where he had been due to be the designated leader in a Grand Tour for the first time in his career.
Attention turned to getting back on the road in time for the Tour, where Ineos hoped the Paris-Nice winner could reprise last year’s role as a super-domestique for Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome.
Froome’s crash at the Criterium du Dauphine then pushed Bernal up the pecking order, but the most important spill of all was the one Thomas suffered at the Tour de Suisse.
That left questions over the Welshman’s preparations, while Bernal, now the sole leader of the team in Switzerland, went on to deliver a superb victory.
Ineos were quick to hand him co-leadership of the team at the Tour as a result. Even though it would be only the second Grand Tour of his career. Even though nobody so young had won the Tour in the post-war era.
This year’s was a course that suited him. The “highest” ever edition of the Tour – with three summit finishes above 2,000 metres and passes over the Tourmalet, Galibier and the Iseran – was meat and drink to a rider born and raised in Zipaquira, 2,650 metres above sea level.
Bernal took time on Thomas almost accidentally on stage three, with the Welshman losing a wheel in the final few hundred metres and five seconds with it.
But when Thomas flipped the script with his late dig on La Planche des Belles Filles, there was a sense that Ineos were much happier to have the attention on the shoulders of the defending champion – older, more experienced and better equipped to handle it.
“I think everyone is maybe getting a bit carried away (with Bernal)” team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said at the time.
“For me this (Tour) is as much about learning how to manage that expectation as it is about trying to win the race.”
But those expectations were real, and Brailsford had himself built them up.
“I wanted a new Chris Froome, basically, so I set myself the challenge of finding him,” Brailsford said on the first rest day.
“I took two years of looking at all the young riders, all the under-23s, all the juniors, everybody around and then thought, OK, I like the look of Egan.”
Brailsford had found him in Italy, racing for Androni Giocattoli.
Gianni Savio had signed him for his pro-continental team even though Bernal had never even raced at junior level, progressing instead from mountain biking after Savio was shown his lab data by a Colombian journalist.
Born into poverty, Bernal first rode a hand-me-down bike before scraping the money together to enter his first mountain bike races. He has been winning races ever since.
In his second season on the road, he won the prestigious Tour l’Avenir in 2017 before joining what was Team Sky at the end of the season.
In a sport where riders tend to be thought of as prospects until the age of around 25, Bernal’s potential looks immense.
The late abandonment of Thibaut Pinot and the intervention of the weather in the Alps gave a Tour once billed the best edition since 1989 a slightly unsatisfactory conclusion, but few could argue that Bernal was not among, if not the, strongest rider in the field.
Pinot may have been the star of the Pyrenees, but Bernal was the last man to stay with him on the climb above Foix, and it was the Colombian on the front foot on the Galibier and the Col de l’Iseran – that last attack being the one that put him in yellow for good.
“He’s been incredible from the start,” Thomas said. “He’s a phenomenal talent. We all said last year he’ll win the Tour one day. Maybe we didn’t expect it to be this year but he’s been super strong.”