Egan Bernal will stand on the top step in Paris on Sunday as the youngest winner of the Tour de France in the post-war era and the first from Colombia.
As Vincenzo Nibali collected the stage victory in the Alpine ski resort of Val Thorens, the biggest celebrations were at the Team Ineos hotel after their 22-year-old star successfully defended his yellow jersey.
Bernal can now enjoy clinking champagne glasses on Sunday’s traditional procession into Paris, where he will seal a seventh Tour win out of the last eight for his British-registered team.
“I think not,” Bernal said when asked whether his achievement had sunk in. “I’m really happy for sure but when we arrive at the hotel and I will be alone maybe I will believe it.
“I have not won it yet, we have one stage in front of us…but yeah, it’s almost ready. I almost won the Tour.
“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.”
Last year’s winner Geraint Thomas effectively handed over the title as they crossed the line arm in arm in Val Thorens, with the Welshman having moved up himself in the general classification to make it a one-two for Team Ineos.
Thomas admitted there was a tinge of disappointment to lose his crown, saying this year’s race had been “night and day” compared with 12 months ago.
“Sometimes it felt like any last thing that could go wrong went wrong,” he said. “Even in the run up it wasn’t plain sailing, there were always things happening and sometimes it was tough. I had to stay positive and focused and keep fighting
Geraint Thomas, right, congratulates Colombia’s Bernal and later admitted things have not gone as well in the Tour de France this time around (AP)
“It was great that Egan won and crossing the line today was an amazing feeling and it’s great to be part of it again for the team.
“But from a personal point of view, last year I didn’t have a crash or have one puncture. I felt good every day and I was on a roll, similar to Egan this year. But all you can do is get out there and keep fighting.”
Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk will take the bottom step on the podium after Julian Alaphilippe, who started the day second overall after his remarkable run in yellow, cracked once more on the final day.
Bernal was almost named the winner without a pedal being turned on Saturday as the bad weather which struck on Friday continued in the Alps, and threatened to see the stage from Albertville, already cut from 130km to 59km, abandoned altogether.
But the rain, hail and lightning held off long enough for the race to be run at an aggressive pace given the short distance.
Bahrain-Merida’s Nibali, the 2014 Tour winner but never a contender this year after his efforts in the Giro d’Italia, took the stage win out of the breakaway while Jumbo-Visma set the pace behind, looking to shake off Alaphilippe to get Kruijswijk on the podium.
Nibali made the decisive move on the 33.4km climb to Val Thorens 13 kilometres from the summit, just as Alaphilippe was going the other way off the back of the main group.
This was arguably the weakest Team Ineos have looked in their long-running dominance of the race, and yet they emerged with their best result since Sir Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome occupied the top two steps of the podium in 2012.
They did not take the yellow jersey until Bernal’s attack on the Col de l’Iseran paid dividends on a weather-shortened stage 19, and the sight of their riders massed on the front of the peloton setting a pace designed to burn off their rivals has been rare.
But that will not matter to team principal Sir Dave Brailsford, whose investment in the precocious Bernal has paid off sooner than expected.
The Colombian had been pencilled in to lead the team at the Giro in May but after a training crash ruled him out he turned attention to the Tour, where he expected to be supporting Thomas and Froome.
But after Froome’s crash at the Criterium du Dauphine and Thomas’ spill at the Tour de Suisse, Bernal was elevated to co-leader status and has repaid the faith shown in him.
Though he did not win a stage – with no victor named on stage 19 where he crested the Iseran first – Bernal was consistently attacking in the mountains to make up for the time he lost to Thomas in the stage 13 time trial.