FILE - In this Saturday, July 20, 2019 file photo France's Julian Alaphilippe wearing the overall leader's yellow jersey rides with the pack during the fourteenth stage of the Tour de France cycling race over 117,5 kilometers (73 miles) with start in Tarbes and finish at the Tourmalet pass, France. (AP Photo/ Christophe Ena, File)

A Tour for the ages getting its first South American winner

July 28, 2019 - 8:46 am

PARIS (AP) — A Tour de France for the ages is getting a champion of an unusually young age: 22-year-old Egan Bernal, set to become South America's first winner of cycling's greatest race when he rides to the finish in yellow on the Champs-Elysees in Paris on Sunday night.

The slightly built Colombian with a killer instinct on the road proved to be the strongest of the 176 strong men who roared off from the start in Brussels, Belgium, on July 6 on their three-week, 3,366-kilometer (2,092-mile) odyssey that delivered the most absorbing, drama-packed Tour in decades and a new cycling super-star in the making: Bernal.

Colombian fans were partying in Paris even before the surviving 155 riders roused their tired legs for the 21st and final stage from Rambouillet west of Paris.

But the millions of French fans who had lined the roads through east, central and southern France, and up into the thinning air of the Pyrenees and Alps, were ruing a Tour of bitter-sweet.

First, their hearts soared with fabulous racing from French riders Julian Alaphilippe, who held the iconic yellow jersey for 14 days, and Thibaut Pinot, who won on the first of seven 2,000-meter-plus (6,500-feet) peaks scaled by the highest Tour in history.

But joy turned to sorrow when Alaphilippe and Pinot's prospects of becoming France's first winner since 1985 were cruelly dashed just two days before the grand finale in Paris, on an epic Stage 19 where Mother Nature became a party-pooping guest. An almighty dump of torrential rain and hail severed the Tour route just as Bernal was succeeding in ripping the race lead off Alaphilippe, who'd clung to it like a kid with a favorite toy.

Alaphilippe, more than anyone, first ignited and then stoked what will long be remembered as a Tour of fireworks. With his goatee beard and can't-catch-me attacks that rivals couldn't match, Alaphilippe embodied "panache," the old-school class so cherished by fans of the 116-year-old Tour.

Alaphilippe's enterprise first put him in yellow in Champagne country on Stage 3 and, then, after he lost the lead on Stage 6, got him the jersey back on Stage 8, which he then held through the Pyrenees and into the Alps.

And it was there that Bernal, raised at altitude in Colombia and at home in thinner air, struck.

He flew up the Tour's highest climb, the dizzying Iseran pass at 2,770 meters (9,088-feet) above sea level, demolishing what remained of Alaphilippe's lead on Stage 19 and building a sizeable one of his own.

The watch was then stopped, with Bernal way ahead, when the hailstorm suddenly coated the route with ice, amid fears that riders on tires barely wider than their thumbs could skid off into the rock- and ravine-scarred Alpine décor.

Compounding the misery for France, Pinot abandoned the race in tears, hobbled by a left-thigh muscle tear.

And that was that. The Tour that had been careening to a rock 'n' roll finish instead had the plug pulled on it. Landslides also truncated the last Alpine Stage 20, which still proved too long for the by-now exhausted Alaphilippe, who slipped off the podium entirely, despite getting a ghee-up call the previous night from French President Emmanuel Macron.

The 2018 champion, Geraint Thomas, used the last climb to secure himself the runner's-up spot in Paris, giving the Ineos team a podium 1-2 with Bernal. Standing next to them in third will be Steven Kruijswijk, a Dutch Mr. Steady who pulled off the feat of being wholly unremarkable during the three weeks, while Alaphilippe, Pinot and Bernal and others rocked. Quite remarkably, none of the top four riders won a stage. Alaphilippe, in fifth, won two.

"I left my skin on the road these past weeks," Alaphilippe told French sports newspaper L'Equipe.

But instead of a red-white-and-blue celebration, Paris was instead being painted in Colombian red, blue and yellow.

Especially yellow.

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