Time may be right for Colombian Egan Bernal in Tour de France

Colombia's Egan Bernal is co-leader of Team Ineos. Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP
Colombia's Egan Bernal is co-leader of Team Ineos. Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/AFP
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Thirty-five years ago a 23-year-old Colombian, Luis Herrera, won the Queen stage of the Tour de France on the climb of Alpe d’Huez. As Herrera approached the summit on his own, having attacked and dropped the French heroes Laurent Fignon and Bernard Hinault, the Colombian stock exchange suspended operations to allow the whole country to watch the conclusion to the stage.

Three years later, Herrera won the Vuelta a España. More recently, Nairo Quintana won the Giro d’Italia. Many more of their countrymen have won stages, in the mountains and sprints, and finished on the podium of Grand Tours. But still no Colombian has won the Tour de France, which started in Brussels yesterday.

That will change this year, according to Jonathan Vaughters, pictured, who runs the EF-Education First team. Vaughters’ team is led by a Colombian, Rigoberto Uran, who was second in 2017.

But Uran, now 32, is not the rider Vaughters has in mind as the probable winner. Nor is it Quintana, who was second at the Tour in 2013 and 2015, both times to Chris Froome, and third in 2016. Instead it is Egan Bernal, the 22-year-old who begins as joint leader at Team Ineos alongside the defending champion, Geraint Thomas.

If Bernal doesn’t win this year, he will win it soon enough. If not him, then another Colombian will. Vaughters is convinced of this.

“If you ask me today who’s the strongest rider in the race going in, it’s Egan Bernal,” said Vaughters. “I think this year we’ll see a Colombian winner of the Tour de France.

“People ask me, what is it? Why are there all these great Colombian riders? They say, ‘It’s the altitude, the mountains.’ That’s part of it. But the biggest part of why Colombian cycling is so strong is junior cycling in Colombia. There are so many 12-year-olds that are completely in love with the sport. They idolise Rigo. The number of 11, 12-year-old kids who ride up to Rigo, to Quintana, to Bernal, it’s immense. It’s unlike any other country I’ve ever seen. Junior racing in Colombia is the most competitive in the world.

“If you think of cycling talent as a pyramid, the base in Colombia is so huge that the pinnacle is really high.”

And the rider currently perched on top of the pinnacle appears to be Bernal. But the fact that so many are talking of him as the favourite is unusual. If he does win this Tour, he’d be the youngest winner in the post-war period. He has only ridden one Grand Tour – last year’s Tour de France, where he finished 15th having ridden as a teammate for Thomas and Froome.

And yet there are those who will tell you that in Bernal they saw a Tour de France winner the minute they set eyes on him. Dave Brailsford, the boss at Team Ineos, was certainly convinced when he encouraged him to break his contract with a small Italian team to join what was then Team Sky in 2018. It followed Bernal’s win at the Tour de l’Avenir. Not many 20-year-olds win the so-called “Tour of the Future”, or Tour de France for young riders. At 19, he’d finished fourth in 2016.

After last year’s Tour, when his performance on Alpe d’Huez helped lay a solid foundation for Thomas’s eventual win, Brailsford signed Bernal on a five-year contract apparently worth £12m. Five year contracts are – or were – unheard of in cycling.

Cycling is still a predominantly European sport. The five-time winners, Jacques Anquetil, Eddy Merckx – who is being honoured this weekend in Brussels, where he grew up, on the 50th anniversary of his first win – Bernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain represent the heartlands: France, Belgium and Spain. Add the Netherlands and Italy and you have the extent of the gene pool for most of the first century of the sport’s history.

It has been opening up over the past 20 years, but what’s fascinating is that a quite separate cycling culture developed in Colombia from the 1950s, when first the Vuelta a Colombia was established, then the Clásico RCN a decade later. Long before teams of Colombians began coming to Europe in the 1980s, cycling had a huge following throughout the country. And it remains, says Hector Urrego, a Colombian broadcaster, “the most important sport, while the most popular is soccer” – he says the distinction is signifcant.

Colombians followed Herrera and his countrymen with fanatical interest, says Urrego: “From 1983-88, 15 million people listened each day to the Tour de France and Tour of Spain. The same as in Colombia for the Vuelta a Colombia and Clásico RCN.” Fifteen million people represents a third of the population.

When Quintana won the Giro and then the Vuelta he was met by thousands at the aiport, given open top bus tours before many thousands more, and received by the president. Still only 29, Quintana, who was Bernal’s age when he finished second in 2013, could yet deliver on his early promise. But over the last two seasons he has looked like a rider in decline.

In a way it is inexplicable that Bernal is being so confidently talked about as the favourite. Counting against him is his age, his inexperience, his crashes – he had two bad ones last year, and another, breaking his collarbone, on the eve of this year’s Giro, where he was to lead Team Ineos.

But he returned at last month’s Tour of Switzerland and won. He won Paris-Nice earlier in the year. Only Jakob Fuglsang, the more experienced leader of the Astana team who is similarly unproven as a Grand Tour contender, comes into the Tour with a better collection of results. Bernal is also backed by the strongest team: a Tour-winning machine.

A Colombian win has been a long time coming and many, like Vaughters, are convinced it is imminent. Yet in this most open of Tours nothing is certain. If Bernal believes it’s his destiny he need only look at to of his rivals, the Movistar team leader. Six years ago it seemed inconceivable that Quintana would not one day win the Tour. These days he is almost the forgotten man. But he, like many others, will never have a better chance than this year.