“I feel this is not only my triumph, but the triumph of a whole country,” Bernal said Saturday (via NBC). “ . . . 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. . . .
"Here we are, and I’m very emotional.”
Although he finished Saturday’s stage in fourth place, the winner is chosen based on the amount of time taken to complete each stage and Bernal’s final total was 82 hours 52 minutes. His INEOS teammate Geraint Thomas was 1:11 back in second place. While Bernal, Thomas and Team INEOS were focused on finishing the win, Caleb Ewan of Australia outsprinted all the other cyclists, winning the final stage in 3:08:08.
As the realization that he would win the 22-day race sank in, Bernal, the Tour’s youngest rider, remained in a bit of shock Saturday. “I’m really happy, but when we arrive at the hotel and I’m alone, maybe only then I will believe it,” he said (via the Guardian).
“It’s our first Tour, so you can imagine the reaction [in Colombia]. I think it’s really important for us. I’m really proud to be the first Colombian to win the Tour.”
Conditions challenged cyclists this year, ranging from heat to a hailstorm to a landslide that cut short the 20th stage in the Alps. The victory by Bernal became a foregone conclusion after that penultimate stage Saturday at Val Thorens and, like most Tour champions, he acknowledged that his familiarity with mountain racing gave him an important edge.
“I live in Colombia at 2,600 meters [roughly 8,500 feet],” he said Saturday, “so when we are up high in the mountains I feel much better than in the first part of the climbs. I’m a climber, and when we are going up, more and more, it’s better. I don’t know if it’s a coincidence, but for sure it’s an advantage.”
Thomas, the Welshman who was last year’s champion, explained that Bernal’s “talent was there to see from the very start. He’s improving all the time and was born to go uphill fast. He’s got the best team around him and he can continue to improve. He’s a humble guy with good support from his family and a very bright future. He has a good network to keep him grounded.”
Fabio Rodriguez, who discovered Bernal when he enrolled in a mountain biking class for underprivileged city kids at the age of 8, recalled that the cyclist “was always disciplined and a hard worker. You never had to tell him to do something twice,” he told the Associated Press.
The victory highlights the country’s strong cycling tradition. Luis “Lucho” Herrera in 1984 became the first of 12 Colombians to win a stage victory in the Tour de France, and others have worn the “King of the Mountains” polka dot jersey. Nairo Quintana, who entered this year’s Tour as a favorite to win, finished second overall in 2013 and 2015. He was eighth after Saturday’s stage.
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