ZIPAQUIRA, Colombia (AP) — Thousands of screaming fans held a victory party for Tour de France champion Egan Bernal in his Colombian hometown on Wednesday, celebrating the first Latin American to win cycling’s most prestigious race.
Bernal rode his bike into the central square of Zipaquira wearing the Tour de France’s iconic yellow jersey while some 3,000 supporters dressed in the same color chanted his name.
The 22-year-old won the Tour last month ahead of Ineos teammate and defending champion Gearing Thomas, becoming the youngest rider to win the race since World War II.
Bernal’s victory has been widely celebrated in Colombia, which has produced several world-class riders but had never won the Tour.
As Bernal flew home from Europe, a Colombian airline crew spotted him on their plane and celebrated his presence with a toast and free champagne for passengers. Then he was flown in a helicopter to his hometown of Zipaquira, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) outside Bogota, Colombia’s capital.
“If someone would’ve come to my neighborhood a few years ago and told me I was going to win the Tour de France, I wouldn’t have believed it,” Bernal said on a stage set up for the party that was decorated in yellow, with fresh flowers arranged in the shape of a bicycle. “Today I feel very proud to be Colombian and bring the yellow jersey home.”
Bernal’s victory especially resonates with the residents of neglected mountainous areas, which are home to the country’s top riders.
Bernal grew up in Zipaquira, an oxygen-starved town about 9,200 feet (2,800 meters) above sea level. His father was a security guard at the local tourist attraction, a salt mine that houses a large cathedral. His mother labored at a local flower farm.
Bernal’s friends said he set ambitious goals from an early age, training hard to make it onto the international cycling circuit, and benefiting from training in the high altitude of Colombia’s mountains.
“He had an insatiable hunger for victory,” said Felix Baron, a childhood friend and professional cyclist who drove two hours from his farm to attend Bernal’s victory party. “He is like an eagle that puts his eye on a goal and doesn’t let go.”
As a teenager, Bernal enrolled in a local college to study journalism, but a mentor convinced him to drop his studies and devote his time to cycling after seeing his potential. The mentor promised to pay for Bernal’s university studies if his sports career floundered.