Egan Bernal crossed the finish line hand in hand with Geraint Thomas, his Ineos team-mate and the reigning champion he will dethrone. It was a poignant moment at the end of a wild, gripping, unpredictable and ultimately anticlimactic race, as Thomas handed over not only his title but most probably the keys to the kingdom.
“He’s 22, he’s in a strong team, and he keeps getting better,” said a magnanimous Thomas, who finished second overall. “He was born to go uphill fast. He’s a humble guy and he’s got an amazing career ahead of him. He could dominate for years. Let’s hope he doesn’t keep coming back here or it could get boring for the rest of us.”
The 2014 champion Vincenzo Nibali soloed his way to the stage win before Bernal and Thomas rolled in to a sopping wet Val Thorens fourth and fifth. Bernal will be the first Colombian to win the Tour and was emotional at the finish, hugging his girlfriend and then his father, who for years travelled with him on a motorbike in the hills above Bogata when a young Egan went out riding, and who had flown out specially for the finish. “He’s the only one who knows how many kilometres I do, who sees all the effort,” Bernal said. “It’s special to have him here.”
The finale itself was not quite the thriller this race deserved. A combination of stage 19’s hailstorms and stage 20’s deluge of rain meant we lost three categorised climbs and around 100km of action, and a truncated 59km route to Val Thorens was lacking in great drama beyond Nibali’s assault. You wonder what might have happened had nature not interfered over the past two days, but then Grand Tours have always been a game of chess in a hurricane, where even the best laid plans are blown apart by forces beyond control.
What if Bernal hadn’t broken his collarbone and rode the Giro instead? What if Thomas hadn’t crashed in the build-up? What if Thibaut Pinot, so strong in the Pyrenees, hadn’t abandoned in the Alps? Perhaps Bernal would have beaten them all anyway, such was his resilience over three hard weeks. If this race taught us anything it’s that no one ever really conquers the Tour de France, they just survive better than the rest.
This Tour was dubbed “the highest in history” and it was high in the sky where his natural climbing skills really told. “I live in a town in Colombia at 2,600m,” Bernal said. “When I was high in the mountains I was feeling much better than the first part of the climbs. That is my advantage.”
Time will tell how many more Bernal adds to his collection. Life is going to change a little now, but he already speaks with the maturity and authority of a serial champion. “When you win you think about the next race. You always want more, you’re never satisfied. Now I’m starting to think about winning a second, and a third. Winning is like a drug, it’s addictive.”
Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk will finish third, reward for a consistent performance in an exceptional team who won four stages in all, with one still to play for on the Champs-Elysees. Here the Dutch team drove a hard pace into the climb to Val Thorens and forced Julian Alaphilippe to crack, sliding down the mountain and the standings from second to fifth.
That felt harsh on the man who has lit up this Tour with his aggressive riding and rockstar appeal, as well as his constant ability to defy the odds; it is not often a one-day classics specialist finishes above seasoned climbers like Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet. “Hats off to Alaphilippe,” said Thomas. “He was fifth in the end but he certainly deserved to be on the podium. He was the reason this race was raced so differently.”
As well as Thomas took it, he would surely have been frustrated with how this year has panned out. Crashes and injuries disrupted his build-up as well as the Tour itself, to the point where finishing second was a fine achievement, but he will not take home the second yellow jersey he came for. “It’s tough to sustain that level,” he said. “There are so many distractions, a few knocks, crashes. I managed to get myself in good shape but it didn’t quite happen. But we won as a team. I’m super happy.”
Now only Paris is left, more procession than peloton, where Bernal will clink champagne glasses with his team-mates as he rides down the Champs-Elysees. After coming through three of the most extraordinary weeks in the modern history of the Tour, he will finally have a chance to soak up the moment.