VAL THORENS, France (Reuters) – Climbing phenomenon Egan Bernal was poised to become the first Colombian to win the Tour de France and the youngest race champion in 110 years when he retained the overall lead after Saturday’s 20th stage, a 59-km ride from Albertville.
The Team Ineos rider, 22, finished fourth in the stage won by 2014 champion Vicenzo Nibali, the only man to interrupt the British outfit’s reign on the Tour since 2012.
His team mate and defending champion Geraint Thomas is second overall ahead of Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk after France’s Julian Alaphilippe cracked in the final ascent to the ski resort of Val Thorens.
Sunday’s final stage from Rambouillet to Paris is a largely processional ride with only the final sprint being contested.
Bernal, who claimed the yellow jersey when he was the first at top of the Col de l’Iseran in Saturday’s truncated 19th stage, was never bothered in a stage that had been shortened due to landslides on the initial course.
“It’s incredible to think that I have won my first Tour,” he said. “I just want to get to the finish line in Paris tomorrow and after I’ll be calmer. Colombia is on the verge of winning its first Tour – I feel this is not only my triumph but the triumph of a whole country.
“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. As a kid, you think ‘how cool it would be to be there one day’, but it looked so far away. Here we are and I’m very emotional.”
Three Colombians will feature in the top 10 as former podium finishers Rigoberto Uran and Nairo Quintana lie seventh and eighth overall, respectively.
Alaphilippe cracked with 14km to go in the final 33-km climb ending 2,365 metres above sea level and slipped from second to fifth overall.
Bernal is 1:11 ahead of Thomas, who was always bested by the Colombian in the mountains and never looked in a position to threaten him on his favourite terrain.
Kruijswijk is 1:31 off the pace.
FIRST OF MANY
The Dutchman’s Lotto Jumbo-Visma team set a high pace at the foot of the climb to Val Thorens and Laurens De Plus stepped up a gear to trim the peloton as the breakaway riders’ advantage melted.
Sensing the main pack breathing down the neck of the breakaway, Nibali, looking to salvage a poor campaign with a stage win, went solo with 12.5km left.
He never looked back and held off world champion Alejandro Valverde, who took second place 10 seconds behind with his Movistar team mate and fellow Spaniard Mikel Landa finishing third.
“It was a difficult Tour for me but I never gave up and finally I win again on this race,” said Nibali, who had no huge expectations after finishing the Giro d’Italia second overall this year.
Bernal, who will also win the white jersey for the best Under-25 rider in the race, crossed the line 17 seconds off the pace to Thomas’s accolade.
In the absence of four-time champion and team mate Chris Froome, Bernal rose to the challenge after winning the Paris-Nice and Tour de Suisse week long races.
He will become the youngest rider to win the Tour de France since the end of the Second World War and the third youngest in its history.
As he crossed the line he was congratulated by his team-mate and 2018 champion Thomas. Asked what words he used, Thomas replied: “I said to him, ‘Just enjoy it. Soak it all up. And don’t worry about crying, because all real men cry.’”
Team Ineos principal Dave Brailsford said: “It’s the most exciting Tour de France that we’ve taken part in. A lot of people may have questioned having two leaders, were we hedging our bets and whether it was going to work. It’s worked to perfection and you can’t get better than second and first.”
Frenchman Romain Bardet, who dropped out of overall contention early in the race, is set to snatch the polka dot jersey for the mountain classification and Peter Sagan is expected to win a record seventh green jersey for the points classification.
Reporting by Julien Pretot and Neil Robinson; Editing by Christian Radnedge