BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Like most Colombian cyclists, Egan Bernal is a gifted climber.
Unlike most Colombian cyclists, he took advantage of those climbing skills honed in the Andean country to reach the pinnacle of the sport, a victory in the Tour de France on Sunday.
Bernal, 22, is not only the first Colombian to win but also the youngest champion of the Tour de France since 1909, and the first Latin American champion in the entire history of the competition. With his win, he fulfilled what had been a Colombian dream since 1975, when Cochise Rodríguez, an early luminary for that country in the sport, made his debut in the race and finished 27th overall.
Only two other Colombians had ever managed to get the sought-after yellow jersey — albeit briefly, and never to the finish line.
“This triumph is not only mine, but of a whole country,’’ an emotional Bernal told reporters after completing the race’s penultimate stage. He recalled that just a few years ago he was watching the race on television, when winning “seemed impossible.”
His most decisive moment came during the 19th stage, in which competitors face two mountain climbs. On the ascent to the Col de l’Iseran, the highest paved pass in the Alps at more than 9,000 feet (2700 meters), Bernal decided to go after Julian Alaphilippe of France, who was ahead by 1 minute and 30 seconds.
Bernal climbed the Iseran alone and began a descent that would take him to the day’s final pass. But an avalanche blocked the road, forcing the Tour organizers to call off the stage early. Bernal was suddenly the new race-leader, 45 seconds ahead of Alaphilippe, and had all but secured the win.
Bernal’s victory, in a sense, is a full circle moment for his hometown, Zipaquirá, a small industrial and agricultural town north of Bogotá that is adjacent to the highlands where thousands of cyclists train everyday.
It is also the birthplace of Efraín Forero, known as “el Zipa,” who in 1951 was the first ever winner of the Vuelta a Colombia race.
Bernal’s father, Germán, used to work as a security guard, while his mother, Flor Marina, worked picking carnations in the fields that dot the savanna in the outskirts of the Colombian capital.
Bernal began racing at age 8, when he arrived at the Municipal Sports Institute of Zipaquirá with a heavy mountain bike in tow. Fabio Rodríguez, his coach at the time, described him as an ordinary child. “He already knew how to ride, but nothing more,” Rodríguez recalled.
But he was a driven little boy. As soon as he got a trophy he started thinking about the next one. “He always thought about climbing,” Rodríguez said. “Egan is a total talent, the whole package, and very mentally strong. That is what sets him apart now.”
Bernal formally began his cycling career at age 14 as a mountain biker, with Pablo Mazuera, a coach and patron who traveled with him to various competitions inside and outside Colombia. “He always wanted more, and together we worked step by step to weave a very organized sports life,” Mazuera said. “Ever since childhood he was a very committed person, he always wanted to be focused on the sport.”
Bernal won important mountain bike races and was aiming to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Games when his fate changed. Gianni Savio, the veteran director of the Androni Giocattolli-Sidermec road team, sought him out and made a four-year contract offer, after watching him breezily climb mountains as though he was on a motorcycle.
Under Savio’s guidance, Bernal transitioned to road cycling, which meant more sponsors, money, structure and races to hone his talent.
When Bernal was first signed, the sports daily Marca hailed him as “the upcoming beast.” So much so that within two years Team Sky, the best funded and winningest team at the Tour, bought out his contract. With Bernal’s victory, the riders for Team Sky, now Ineos, have won the Tour seven times in the last decade.
Bernal, according to Mazuera, wanted to do little else than pedal. “Betting on him was not hard because his commitment and results were evident,” Mazuera said by phone while he was on his way to Paris to watch the final stage.
“Everything has happened very fast in the last four years. Now Egan has won the best race in the world and it’s hard to take in, to realize what everyone that has been around him in that time has helped achieve.”
Matt Rendell, a sports commentator and author of “Kings of the Mountains: How Colombia’s Cycling Heroes Changed Their Nation’s History,” said the rural roots of Colombian cyclists have been important to their success. Bernal shares some common traits with Nairo Quintana, a cycling star with a Giro d’Italia and a Vuelta a España under his belt.
“Egan is very much like Nairo when he was 22 — a strong phenomenon, great at the mountainous circuits. But Egan has a team Nairo never did. He’s also mature and hungry, and he’s not afraid to win.”
Bernal speaks English and Italian and has proved to be an eloquent spokesman for the current Colombian crop, perhaps because he studied at journalism school on a scholarship before dropping out to race full time.
During the last year, Bernal fell three times and underwent clavicle, nose, cheek and jaw surgeries. He lost several teeth in an accident that involved multiple cyclists in the Clásico de San Sebastián race in August. In May, when Bernal was gearing up for the Giro d’Italia, the second biggest race in the international circuit, another accident rendered him unable to move for weeks. While he missed out on Italy, he gained time to get ready for France, where he arrived as one of the favorites.
His success owes much to a well-oiled machine, and the way Team Ineos, sponsored by a British chemical company, bet on him. When Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion of the Tour and the original team leader, fell behind in the Alps, he worked along Bernal to support his final stretch.
Colombia increasingly has been a mecca for elite cyclists, but it lacks a vibrant and transparent sport system. Recent failings in the national sport federation and doping scandals are symptomatic of a crisis overshadowing it.
Still, the Tour victory, for some commentators, marks a new era in the sport in which Colombians become serious contenders.
As Bernal’s colleague and countryman Rigoberto Urán, 2017 runner-up, put it after the race: “The road always puts you where you belong.”
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