TIGNES, France (AP) — After nearly three weeks of complete uncertainty at the Tour de France, things are back to normal, with an Ineos rider in the yellow jersey.
Never in its six previous victories at cycling’s marquee event did the super-rich British team have to wait so long before taking control of the race. But two days before the Tour ends on the Champs-Elysees in Paris, new race leader Egan Bernal and his teammates finally did it Friday during a memorable stage that was turned upside-down by a hailstorm.
The dramatic weather conditions made the road to the ski resort of Tignes too dangerous and forced organizers to stop Stage 19. But before they called it a day, Ineos riders had already made the pack explode en route to the Col de l’Iseran, the Tour’s highest point at 2,770 meters (9,090 feet).
Times were taken at the top of the mountain, were Bernal was 2 minutes, 10 seconds faster than previous leader Julian Alaphilippe, enough to wipe away the Frenchman’s race lead.
With only one tough stage remaining before the processional ride to Paris on Sunday, the 22-year-old Bernal is now in an ideal position to become the first Colombian to win the Tour, and the youngest champion since World War II.
“When they told me that I was the race leader, I could not believe it,” said Bernal. “I wanted to cry.”
Until this week, Ineos — the former Team Sky — had showed unfamiliar weaknesses in the absence of its natural leader Chris Froome, who missed the Tour this year because of injury. The team was particularly weak in the Pyrenees, where it could not apply its usual strategy of setting up a fast tempo at the bottom of climbs.
In the Tourmalet, Ineos riders were unable to ride at the front, leaving their two leaders — Bernal and defending champion Geraint Thomas — exposed to their rivals’ attacks.
With cycling observers already speaking about a decline, Ineos started to put things back on track in Thursday’s first big Alpine stage to Valloire, where Bernal managed to gain 32 seconds on Alaphillipe.
They completed the job on Friday in an impressive display of force. Jonathan Castroviejo ensured a fast pace at the bottom of the Iseran before Dylan Van Baarle took the baton from his teammate at the front. His speedy pedaling was too much for many strugglers, including climber Nairo Quintana, who got dropped one by one in the lush Alpine pastry of wildflowers.
Thomas attacked 6 kilometers (3.7 miles) from the summit to wreak havoc in the leading pack before Bernal, his jersey wide open, flew away in the rarefied air while Alaphilippe grimaced at the back with saliva hanging off his goatee.
“We’ve maybe not been the strongest that we’ve been all race, but today was the day,” Ineos manager Dave Brailsford said. “We thought if there was anywhere that we could make the difference it was on the Iseran. It was going to be hard to get there and I actually thought the guys rode really well.”
Bernal now leads Alaphilippe by 48 seconds overall, with Thomas in third place, 1:16 off the pace. Exhausted after 14 days in the yellow jersey, Alaphilippe could lose more ground in Stage 20 to Val Thorens, and Ineos can reasonably hope for a 1-2 in Paris.
“We are in a very good position. The team can control although we never know until the end,” Bernal said.
A former mountain bike specialist, the diminutive Bernal is continuing the tradition of the great Colombian climbers who have marked the history of the Tour. But unlike them, he is in a position to win the race.
Gifted with superb climbing skills, the super-light Bernal — he only weighs 59 kilos (130 pounds) — has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top. With barely any experience in road racing, he turned pro with the small Androni Giocattoli Pro Continental team before Brailsford lured him following his victory at the Tour de l’Avenir, the most prestigious stage race for Under-23 riders.
After competing at his first Tour last summer and doing an impressive job in support of Thomas and Froome, Bernal was set to get a maiden leader experience at the Giro d’Italia. But he fractured his collarbone in a training crash, forcing him to miss the race and 76 days overall. He returned to competition in June to win the Tour de Suisse, another prestigious title to add to his success at Paris-Nice in March.
At the Tour, he was expected to work for Thomas, but he was far superior to his teammate in high altitude, his favorite ground.
“I love to suffer in the mountains. I love the adrenaline,” Bernal said when asked about his decisive offensive. “I knew that I could fight for the title with an attack. At the same time, it was taking the risk of losing my podium spot. So It told myself, ‘I’m 22, no worries if it does not work, I have so many Tours in front of me.’ I would have had eternal regrets if I had not attacked.”
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