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 the fact 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 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.
“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.
Stand up & take a bow @Eganbernal! 🇨🇴 😎 To keep that head at that age..WOW. @GeraintThomas86 still showing why he’s so loved. 🇬🇧 💗👌Such class & graciousness.— Mark Cavendish (@MarkCavendish) July 27, 2019
Still, biggest round of applause goes to @alafpolak this @LeTour. True heart, grit, personality. 🇫🇷 🦁
This was arguably the weakest 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.
Stage 19 of the Tour de France ended in chaos as hailstorms caused a landslide and forced organisers to stop the race before the final climb.
Organisers declared that times would be taken from the top of the Col de l’Iseran, putting Team Ineos rider Egan Bernal into the yellow jersey after he crested the highest point of the Tour first after attacking out of the group of favourites on the 126.5km stage to Tignes.
Though the peloton could not ride the final climb, Bernal was taken by car to receive his maillot jaune on the podium in Tignes before any official results had been published.
“It’s incredible,” said the 22-year-old, now the clear favourite to become the first Colombian to win the Tour, and the youngest rider in the post-war era.
“When I had the jersey and the lion, I wanted to cry. Tomorrow, I will do my best, but it still hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Bernal had attacked after Ineos team-mate Geraint Thomas and Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk made moves in what proved a successful bid to shake off race leader Julian Alaphilippe, who cracked midway up the Iseran.
When official results for the day did appear, they showed Bernal 48 seconds ahead of Alaphilippe, with Thomas listed one minute and 16 seconds down in third place. Kruijswijk is fourth, one minute 28 down, with Emanuel Buchmann a further 27 seconds back in fifth.
Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said he had mixed feelings about taking the yellow jersey in such circumstances, insisting it was reward for the way his team approached the stage.
“Fortune favours the brave at the end of the day,” said Brailsford.
“We were always going to take today on and I thought the guys rode really well, to be honest…
“We don’t control the weather. In one way, I’m really happy but in another way, I’m still really concerned for everyone else out there.”
Asked if the weather had helped his team win the Tour, as now seems likely, Brailsford replied: “It didn’t. No, we’ll win the Tour de France because of how we ride.”
Commissaries made the call to stop the race after the storms led to a landslide in the valley below Val-d’Isere, with the race route covered in rubble.
Alaphilippe looked frustrated as he climbed into a Deceuninck-Quick Step car as he would have hoped to have taken time back on the long descent, though it will never be known if he could have avoided further losses on the final climb up to Tignes.
It was yet another dramatic twist in the Tour, described as the most exciting edition since 1989, and could well be a decisive one.
Bernal now needs only to survive one final mountain stage on Saturday before potentially celebrating his first Grand Tour victory in Paris a day later.
The neutralisation came as a huge blow to Thomas’ hopes of defending his title. The Welshman may have hoped to bridge the gap to his team-mate in the final 30 kilometres but was denied that opportunity.
Thomas was seen talking to Tour director Christian Prudhomme in Val-d’Isere, but the Frenchman could only gesticulate that there was nothing he could do given the conditions of the road up ahead, where diggers and ploughs were working to clear a path.
It proved a brutal day for French fans, and not just those waiting in Tignes for a race that never arrived.
As Alaphilippe’s grip on yellow was finally loosened, Thibaut Pinot’s dream of becoming the first French winner of the Tour de France for 34 years was ended in cruel circumstances when the Groupama-FDJ rider was forced to abandon just 36 kilometres into the stage.
Pinot had already been seen receiving medical treatment at the back of the peloton but continued to rapidly lose time, and his team revealed it was the result of a muscular injury first suffered on Wednesday when he struck his left leg with a handlebar.
“As he avoided a crash, his left knee hit the handlebar and the pain just got worse,” Groupama-FDJ sports director Philippe Mauduit said.
“We’ve been hoping for an improvement but we knew this morning that it would be complicated if the race was hard. He’s been in pain since the start. It wasn’t possible to keep riding.”
Copy provided by Press Association Sport
Team Ineos’ attempts to break Julian Alaphilippe on the Galibier served mostly to reopen their own leadership debate as Egan Bernal leapfrogged Geraint Thomas on Stage 18 of the Tour de France.
Bernal attacked three kilometres from the summit of the Galibier, the last peak on a brutal 208 kilometres in the Alps, quickly distancing the group of favourites.
But when defending champion Thomas tried his own move one kilometre later, perhaps seeking to bridge to his young team-mate, he served only to drag Thibaut Pinot, Steven Kruijswijk and others with him.
They succeeded in dropping Alaphilippe on the steepest section of the climb, but only temporarily as the Frenchman used his outstanding descending skills to get back on the long descent to the finish, retaining his yellow jersey for a remarkable 14th day.
If these were questionable tactics from Ineos, those questions only multiplied as their co-leaders gave differing answers after the stage.
“We wanted a hard pace and unfortunately we ran out of guys,” Thomas said.
New #TDF2019 GC after 18 stages:— Team INEOS (@TeamINEOS) July 25, 2019
1. Alaphilippe (DQT) 75h18'49"
2. @Eganbernal (@TeamINEOS) +1'30"
3. @GeraintThomas86 (@TeamINEOS) +1'35"
4. Kruijswijk (TJV) +1'47"
5. Pinot (GFC) +1'50" pic.twitter.com/lQ0EFlHNDL
“The call was made for Egan to go and that kicked it off. I couldn’t do much then other than follow.
“I had a little dig just to see if anything was going to happen and the guys followed me over the top. It was a good day for Egan gaining some time.”
But Bernal insisted it was Thomas who had told him to attack.
“It was G’s decision,” the 22-year-old said. “He asked me how I was feeling. I said, ‘I’m feeling really good’ so he asked me to attack to try to move the race and he tried to come with me.
“But when he saw the other guys on his wheel he just stayed with them. But I attacked because he asked me to attack.”
On paper, the end result looks good. Alaphilippe may still hold yellow, but Ineos sit second and third, in pole position for when the expected implosion comes.
But the impression remains that Thomas’ move limited the gains Bernal might have made by increasing the pace behind him.
“We needed to gain time on Alaphilippe,” Bernal added. “I don’t care what happened with G. He is my team-mate and we needed to gain time.
“You never know how the other guys are and if you try to race hard at some point you can drop Alaphilippe and it’s on. I think we did a really good race.”
It is just another way in which Alaphilippe’s sensational run in yellow is changing this Tour, which remains wide open with only two mountain stages left.
Throughout the Pyrenees, teams raced as though waiting for him to fall away, but the first day in the Alps produced more pro-active attempts to make it happen.
He looked in trouble late on the Galibier, but the 19km descent into Valloire favoured the Frenchman, who flew down the mountainside, not only wiping out his deficit but nosing in front of the pack to make his point.
“I went to the front because I love going fast downhill, and I also wanted to show them that I came back,” the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider said.
Bernal may have clawed back time, but Alaphilippe still leads by 90 seconds, with Thomas a further five seconds back in third.
Jumbo-Visma’s Kruijswijk dropped to fourth, still one minute 47 seconds off yellow and three seconds ahead of Groupama-FDJ’s Pinot.
It proved a rough day for Kruijswijk. He saw key lieutenant George Bennett suffer a heavy fall on the final descent after beginning his day with a routine yet high-profile visit from anti-doping officials, who boarded the team bus in the paddock 45 minutes before the stage began, having missed the team at their hotel.
Thomas and Bernal had a similar visit of their own before breakfast, another little added stress before final confirmation came at the start that Luke Rowe’s expulsion from the Tour would not be overturned following Wednesday’s altercation with Tony Martin, who was also disqualified.
The stage victory went to Nairo Quintana, who salvaged some success from the race after his own bid for yellow fell flat.
Starting the day almost 10 minutes down, the Colombian was allowed to join a large breakaway.
The group splintered on the Col d’Izoard before Quintana powered away from Romain Bardet and Alexander Lutsenko on the Galibier to claim his third career Tour win, while Bardet had to settle for the polka-dot jersey as the King of the Mountains.
Talking of leadership debates, Quintana’s win moved him up to seventh overall, three minutes 54 seconds off yellow and now a minute ahead of team-mate Mikel Landa, who seemed unimpressed by the idea of working for Quintana over the next two days.
“Pfft,” he said before a long pause. “We will see, no? We have to play it tactically with our riders.”