35 years after the arrival of the first Colombian riders at the Tour de France, Egan Bernal delivered the first Tour de France overall victory to his cycling-mad nation as he took over, from Julian Alaphilippe, the lead of a race that also enchanted the host country.
For the centenary of the yellow jersey, the 22-year-old Colombian became the second youngest to wear the famous distinctive shirt in Paris – and officially the second youngest Tour de France winner after Henri Cornet was declared the winner following the disqualification of the first four riders in 1904.
“I feel this is not only my triumph but the triumph of a whole country,” said Bernal. “We already had the Giro [Nairo Quintana in 2014] and La Vuelta [Luis Herrera in 1987 and Quintana in 2016], but the Tour was missing and it’s a great honour to think that I’m the one achieving this. When I was a kid, I watched the Tour on TV with my dad and I thought it would be great to ride and finish it one day, but to win it is beyond what I could have hoped for.”
The Grand Départ was organised in Brussels to honour Eddy Merckx, the all-time greatest cyclist, 50 years after he first won the Tour de France on an extraordinary summer for humanity as Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon during the same month: July 1969. “Are you r’Eddy?”, was the tagline of the event in the Belgian capital, the hotbed of European cycling. “Please take Eddy’s style of racing as an example!” urged Tour de France Director Christian Prudhomme when he addressed the riders in his pre-race briefing.
But before it turned out to be a great Tour for Belgian riders – with the exciting stage victories of Dylan Teuns, Thomas De Gendt and Wout van Aert, as well as 15 days in the popular polka dot jersey for Tim Wellens – the neighbours from The Netherlands, albeit deprived of the participation of their golden boy Tom Dumoulin, struck the world.
No Dutch rider had worn the yellow jersey since Erik Breukink in 1989. It was expected that Dylan Groenewegen would end that 30-year void, but the top sprinter fell and his team-mate and compatriot Mike Teunissen made himself a first class substitute to beat Peter Sagan in the sprint to the line near the royal palace. The euphoria in the Jumbo-Visma camp continued the next day with their impressive team time trial victory under the Brussels Atomium, which was an indication of Steven Kruijswijk’s eventual podium place in Paris.
It’s not every edition that the riders make the most of the terrain offered to them before the mountains, but Julian Alaphilippe lit up the race through the vineyards of Champagne before his first stage win, uphill in Epernay.
Nancy, the major city of the Lorraine region, that has had a strong history of Italian immigration (footballer Michel Platini being a notable example) continued its tradition of Italian winners: 70 years after Fausto Coppi, Elia Viviani won in Nancy, yet this was a Tour de France without a single sprinter dominating in the way that Mark Cavendish, Marcel Kittel and André Greipel have done in the recent past. It took until stage 16 for a sprinter to win two stages when Caleb Ewan, on his first participation to the Tour de France, became the youngest rider to win stages in all three Grand Tours since Nino Defilippis in 1956.
Before the Australian, it was South Africa’s Daryl Impey who extended the joy of the stage winners outside of the traditional cycling countries as he claimed victory on stage 9 to Brioude, the home of Romain Bardet. The Frenchman would paradoxically earn the polka dot jersey in the year he’d achieve none of his goals in terms of stages and GC – but his picture at the age of 6 cheering for Richard Virenque and Luc Leblanc on the road side dressed in a polka dot T-shirt along with his father at the 1996 Tour de France was touching.
As the race reached the Pyrenees, the French nation had gone crazy because of Alaphilippe’s odyssey in the yellow jersey and Thibaut Pinot looking in the form of his life. Alaphilippe looked unstoppable, winning the individual time trial in Pau on July 19, the precise birthday of the yellow jersey, and Pinot took his revenge after losing 1’40’’ in the crosswinds on stage 10 by winning the queen stage atop the Tourmalet, before another cruel withdrawal due to injury in the Alps.
As European Champion Matteo Trentin, a former cyclo-cross rider, imposed himself in Gap on stage 17, three quarters of the winners in the 106th Tour de France had come from a discipline other than road racing: cyclo-cross like van Aert and Alaphilippe, cyclo-cross and mountain bike like Sagan, then from track-honed stars Viviani and Ewan, before a double Juniors medallist at the UCI Mountan Bike World Championship took over from Alaphilippe in the yellow jersey: Egan Bernal. He passed first at col d’Iseran, the highest peak of the race (2,770m), and the times were taken up there as a storm made it impossible for a finish in Tignes due to huge amounts of hail and pile of rubble on the road. Mother Nature kept this edition of the Grande Boucle an extraordinary one right until the end.