Team Ineos spent three weeks being asked why they had not been their usual dominant selves at the Tour de France but will end it on Sunday with a one-two of Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas stood on the podium in Paris.
After the champagne clinks of the traditional processional stage into the capital, Bernal, just 22 years and 196 days old as of Sunday, will be on the top step as the youngest winner in the post-war era, the third youngest of all time, and the first from the cycling-mad nation of Colombia.
“If I’m honest, I still can’t believe it,” Bernal said a couple of hours after crossing the line in Val Thorens at the end of stage 20.
“I’ve still not analysed it. I need simply to get to the hotel, have a shower and sit down for half an hour and work it all out.”
The wunderkind can be forgiven for barely getting his head around a breathless few days as a Tour billed as the best since 1989 reached a chaotic ending with two days hampered by bad weather in the Alps.
Bernal took yellow only on Friday when the stage to Tignes was stopped around 30 kilometres short of its intended finish due to landslides in the valley after a violent hailstorm.
Saturday’s stage, that almost did not take place at all as the bad weather continued, was chopped from 130 kilometres to 59, meaning Bernal’s rivals barely had any road left on which to attack.
Instead, they focused on finally shuffling Julian Alaphilippe, one of the stars of this Tour after an unexpected fortnight, off the podium, moving Thomas up to second, 71 seconds adrift of Bernal, and Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk to third, a further 20 seconds in arrears.
Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 Tour winner who arrived hunting stages after his exploits in the Giro d’Italia, gained his reward with a stage victory from the breakaway but all eyes were waiting for Bernal, who crossed the line arm-in-arm with Thomas as the defending champion handed over his title.
“I just said to him, ‘Enjoy it, soak it all up and don’t worry about crying’,” Thomas said. “All real men cry. It’s amazing to be a part of it. He’s a phenomenal athlete, just 22. It’s just an honour to have been a part of this.”
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 a bittersweet moment for Thomas, who admitted he had come to France determined to win but suffered a Tour which was “night and day” compared to 12 months ago.
“It seems like Murphy’s law, what can go wrong will go wrong,” he said. “Luckily it was nothing major but just little setbacks and just the way tactics worked out at times. But I’m happy I gave it my best and super happy it’s Egan on the top step.”
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.
“We got a lot of flack for making it boring so we thought we’d mix it up a bit and keep it exciting,” Thomas joked. “And then just win it at the end.”
None of it will matter now 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.
Asked if he believed in fate, Bernal said: “The only thing I know is without falling in the Giro I wouldn’t be in this position. After riding the Giro it would have been difficult to be here.”
Instead, he was in position to win a Tour which played to his strengths. Billed as the “highest Tour in history” with three summit finishes over 2,000 metres in altitude, and passes of the Galibier and the Iseran, it was meat and drink to a rider born and raised 2,600 metres above sea level.
“I think it was a bit of an advantage,” Bernal said. “When we were high in the mountains I was feeling much better than in the first part of the climbs. I’m a climber and when we are going up more and more it was better for me.”
Given his youth and Ineos’ dominance of this race for so many years now, the sight of Bernal in yellow will be a worrying one for everyone else.
“It’s incredible,” Kruijswijk said of Bernal’s win. “He was a favourite but at 22 it’s really difficult to deal with this pressure.
“It wasn’t a surprise that he would win a Grand Tour eventually but that he did it already at his age is quite impressive.
“Hopefully it’s not like this for the next 10 years or it will be boring for us.”