Egan Bernal all but clinched victory in the Tour de France, defending his overnight lead in the penultimate stage which left him only needing to cross the finish line on Sunday’s twilight parade into Paris to become the first Colombian winner of cycling’s greatest prize and its youngest.
The champion-in-waiting said he was so nervous on the climb to Val Thorens in the Alps that he counted down the kilometres on the way up as defending champion and teammate Geraint Thomas ended the day in second overall, with Dutch rider Steven Kruijswijk in third.
“I still have to get to Paris but it’s incredible,” said 22-year-old Bernal who will become the Tour’s youngest winner since Francois Faber in 1909.
“I’m a little calmer now. I kept thinking 5km, 4km, 3km one less, one less to go each time as we came up the mountain. When we got to the finish and Geraint held out his hand I realized it was over and I was going to win the Tour de France.”
The stage itself was won by 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali who broke from the main contenders late on to win by 17sec at the line where he raised his finger to his lips and to the sky.
– All real men cry –
Bernal and Thomas, co-captains at Team Ineos, crossed the winning line a few seconds ahead of their key rivals and smiled broadly at each other as they held hands in unity to mark the moment.
“I told Egan not to worry about the crying because all real men cry,” said 2018 champion Thomas from Wales.
“He’s an incredible talent and can dominate the race for years to come. It’s a one-two for Ineos so things worked out not that bad. I’m disappointed not to have won, I didn’t think last year Egan would be ready yet, but now I’m looking forward to a bit of downtime. Today is about Egan. He is a really solid guy with a great team and good people around him,” added Thomas.
Ineos principal Dave Brailsford has masterminded seven Tour wins from the last eight editions with Bradley Wiggins, Chris Froome (four wins), Thomas and now with Bernal within a parade of the latest triumph.
Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, who led for 14 days before cracking on Friday’s hail and landslide-hit stage, finished down the field to drop to fifth place overall.
Bernal leads Thomas by 1:11 overall and Jumbo-Visma’s Kruijswijk by 1:31 ahead of the processional day of racing ending in the French capital on Sunday evening.
Nibali, who won the Tour in 2014, came second on this year’s Giro d’Italia and while he looked wiped out early in the Tour was radiant when picking up a stage win late in the game.
“To win here is a great joy,” said Bahrain Merida’s Italian captain.
Saturday’s stage, shortened due to poor weather and the presence of more mudslides, embarked in cool conditions in 12 Celsius (53.6 Fahrenheit) atop the Val Thorens ski resort at 2,356m altitude.
Green jersey wearer Peter Sagan said he was delighted the race had been modified.
“Tomorrow is Paris and one for the sprinters, so let’s see, a win in Paris would be great,” said the Slovak gunning for the sprinter’s jersey for a record seventh time. It’s been a beautiful Tour,” he added.
Frenchman Romain Bardet redeemed what had looked like a disastrous three weeks for him by rallying to win the ‘King of the Mountains’ polka dot jersey with two fine performances in the Alps.
Sunday’s final stage to Paris starts at 1630 GMT and is due to finish beneath the Arc de Triomphe as the sun sets.
RBA/AFP Photos: Bettini