PARIS (Reuters) - Egan Bernal became the first Colombian to win the Tour de France on Sunday with his youthful brilliance looking set to cement Team Ineos’s domination of cycling’s greatest race for years to come.
Bernal, at 22 the youngest rider to win the Tour in 110 years, delivered the British team, formerly known as Team Sky, their seventh title in eight editions in what has become a remarkable Tour dynasty.
In only his second season with Ineos, Bernal beat team mate and defending champion Geraint Thomas for the team’s second one-two, after Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome finished in the top two places in 2012.
Such is Bernal’s precocity, power and room for improvement, though, that he has been tipped to dominate the race despite the fierce internal competition at Ineos with Thomas and four-times champion Froome, who missed the event after a horror crash in June.
No rider has won the Tour more than five times but Bernal is two years younger than Eddy Merckx and one year more youthful than Bernard Hinault when they snatched their first titles.
It means France’s chances of soon finding a successor to Hinault, the last home-grown rider to win the Tour in 1985, appear slim after Thibaut Pinot, the only man to best Bernal in the mountains before he sustained an injury, had to abandon.
Julian Alaphilippe was still wearing the yellow jersey when the 29-year-old Pinot was left sobbing over the cruelty of fate on Friday, hours before the world number one cracked on the highest mountain of the race, the Col de l’Iseran.
The 19th stage was cut short by a hailstorm and landslides, but Bernal had already distanced a fading Alaphilippe, who finished fifth overall but was number one in the hearts of fans alongside Pinot after the duo lit up the race with bold attacks.
Yet Ineos, despite being below their usual collective level and unable to control the race as they have done so often, had two aces to play with Bernal and Thomas — and once Pinot withdrew, they only had to trump Alaphilippe.
It was a done deal when Bernal went solo in the thin air of the Iseran, 2,770 meters above sea level, Alaphilippe’s lack of specific grand tour abilities on the highest ground finally showing.
Barely bothered by Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk and German Emanuel Buchmann, who seemed content with third and fourth overall, Ineos wrapped it up in the final climb up to Val Thorens.
Ineos manager Dave Brailsford, who has now taken Wiggins, Froome and Bernal to the title, summed up the race perfectly.
“It’s the most exciting Tour de France that we’ve taken part in and credit to Julian Alaphilippe as he died for that jersey every stage and he made a lot of people second guess what they thought they knew,” he said.
“And I think Pinot did the same in the Pyrenees. He was aggressive, he was brave and he took the race to us.
“We knew we had a group of older guys who were performing well, but we looked very hard to find the new generation and we decided that it was going to be Egan.
“We fought pretty hard to get him and he developed fantastically well.”
Bernal developed so fast that, with circumstances aiding Ineos, he could be promoted to team co-leader alongside Thomas. Yet for a long period at the Tour, it seemed the team could pay for failing to resolve exactly whch of the two was best placed to strike.
As last year, when Thomas simply proved better than Froome, the dilemma sorted itself out in the hardest climbs.
“A lot of people may have questioned having two leaders, were we hedging our bets and whether it was going to work,” said Brailsford.
“It’s worked to perfection and you can’t get better than second and first.”
Unless Froome could help make it a one-two-three next year?
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ian Chadband