Colombia's National Hero
Egan Bernal becomes the first Colombian to win the Tour de France, while being the fourth-youngest winner in history.
The 106th edition of the Tour de France has made history once again. For the first time in the competition's history, the trophy will be heading to Colombia. Twenty-two-year-old Egan Bernal crossed the finish line as the fourth youngest rider to ever win the title, and most importantly, the first Colombian to win the Tour de France. And this was only his second time racing in the competition. This victory has propelled Bernal from his humble beginnings as a cyclist in Zipaquirá, a town 30 miles north of the capital Bogotá where he was born, to a national hero.
In Colombia, cycling is as popular as fútbol. In some circles, it is debated as the nation's favorite sport. It's prevalent in Colombia to have cities shut down certain roads and streets on the weekends from vehicles and allow cyclists to ride. Every significant race is a must-see TV event across the country.
Bernal's career started to gain traction after he won two stages and the title at the Tour de I'Avenir in 2017. He signed to Team Sky for the 2018 season. His debut competition was in the Tour Down Under, and it was a successful one where he won the young rider classification and had an overall 6th place finish. Last February, Bernal won the Colombian National Time Trial Championships. He later celebrated his first win with Team Sky with an overall standings win at the Tour Colombia.
He created a pattern of victories that also included first overall in the Tour of California and finishing third in the Volta a Catalunya. He also won the Tour de Suisse and the Paris-Nice cycling race. These victories helped Bernal participate in the Tour de France in July of 2018 when named as a 'domestique,' or a rider who works for the benefit of the team.
Throughout the 14 days of the race, Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe locked down the competition and was a sure bet to win it all. The route in this year's Tour de France had five summit finishes. Three of which were more than 6,500 feet high. Climbing these mountains proved to be a considerable advantage for Bernal. As part of the Ineos British racing team, Bernal's strength was going uphill. His teammates, Chris Froome, Geraint Thomas, and Bradley Wiggins, all prior Tour winners, were time trial specialists. Little did people know that something was brewing in the Alps.
During Stage 19 in the Alpine town of Tignes, the climb to Iseran was cut short due to a powerful hailstorm that turned roads into ice rinks. Bernal took the lead from Alaphilippe while on the downhill part of the stage. Shortly afterward, organizers decided to use the timings of the climb to calculate the overall standings, which placed the Colombian in the driver's seat.
He held on to the lead Saturday when Stage 20 was shortened from its standard 84 miles to only 36 miles because of a landslide that occurred along the route. The 20-mile climb up the mountain within the course proved difficult for Alaphilippe's quest to win the Tour. Bernal credits his resilience during his climbs in the Tour with training in the town of Pacha, Colombia, which at its highest elevation is at least 12,000 feet. The testing ground helps Bernal gain confidence with each climb.
Going back over 44 years, Colombia has had success in the Tour de France, but becoming champion has always eluded various riders. In 1975, Martin Emilio Rodriguez was the first Colombian to finish the tour - he finished in 27th place. In 1984, Luis Herrera became the first Colombian to win a stage. The following year, Herrera, along with Fabio Parra finished in 7th and 8th place respectively; the first time Colombians finished in the top 10.
Three years later, Parra finished in 3rd place and earned a first-ever podium finish for Colombia. Nearly thirty years later, Nairo Quintana had three career podium finishes: Second place in 2013 and 2015, and a third-place finish in 2016. In 2017, Rigoberto Urán finished in second place, while Fernando Gaviria in 2018 won the first stage and became the first Colombian since 2003 to wear the yellow jersey.
This time it was Egan Bernal's turn. All he needed to do was loop the cobblestones of the Champs-Élysées eight times. He did not need to win the final stage. His one minute and 31-second lead were enough for him to seal the victory and for thousands of Colombian fans who witnessed this historic race. The time was the closest separation between riders vying first and third place in the 116-year history of the competition.
"I feel this is not only my triumph but the triumph of a whole country," Bernal said during an NBC interview. "... It's a great honor to think that I'm the one achieving this. My dad couldn't talk at first, but when he managed, he congratulated me. He was about to cry. For us, it's a dream. We used to watch the Tour on TV, and we thought it was something unreachable." Many Colombians were glued to the television when Bernal crossed the finish line. One was Colombia's president, Iván Duque, who praised the young champion on his victory via Twitter. "What happened today fills us with emotion," he tweeted.
Back in Zapaquira, it was hard to find anyone holding their emotions inside while watching the race live on a huge screen. When Bernal crossed the finish line, confetti was flying everywhere. People were in a state of euphoria while many dressed in Colombian football jerseys emulating Bernal's yellow Tour winner's jersey. Children raised their bicycles overhead while others waved the national flag. "We are just too happy, we can't hide it," said Alfredo Molano, traveling from Bogotá to celebrate the victory. "This is phenomenal; it's immense for Colombia."
The "boy wonder," as he is known as in Zipaquirá, is now Colombia's most successful sportsman. Not as flashy and stylish as other cycling counterparts, but conquering the Alps in his second attempt of the competition has made Bernal the peoples champion. In an interview after his win, Bernal is looking towards the future. "You finally win the Tour, and then you're thinking about winning another tour," said Bernal. "What's next? As a cyclist, you're always going to want a little more." From his performance, there are many more Tour de France titles in his future.