Colombia's Egan Bernal is the Tour de France's budding star
CARCASSONNE, France (AP) — The youngest rider at the Tour de France is showing all the signs of becoming cycling's next big star.
Colombia's Egan Bernal proved his worth — and more — by working as a trailblazer for Sky teammates Geraint Thomas and Chris Froome up the zigzagging ascent of Alpe d'Huez.
Bernal's effort set up Thomas to win the grueling 12th stage to strengthen his hold on the yellow jersey, and for Froome to protect second place in a dominant choral performance by Sky.
The climb up one of the Tour's iconic climbs promises to be a signature moment for Bernal, who at 21-years-old is the youngest of the 176 riders to start the Tour and yet already appears to have the making of a winner.
"It felt great to be there on Alpe d'Huez, a mythic climb, and leading the group," Bernal told The Associated Press two days after his impressive Alpine trek. "And on top of that, having Geraint, who is the leader, and Froomey, who is one of the best cyclists in history, right behind. it was important for me."
The original plan was for Bernal to pull for five kilometers of the demanding ascent. But when the legs flagged on another teammate, he went on for another three kilometers and set a pace that fellow Colombian and two-time Tour runner-up Nairo Quintana couldn't match.
Froome said he sees his younger self in his precocious partner.
"He's got an amazing engine. You only have to look at what he did on Alpe d'Huez, for a 21-year-old, that's amazing," Froome said on Sunday. "There is a lot in Egan that reminds me of myself when I was younger. It's great having him on the team and he brings a lot of young, new energy to the group."
From the city of Zipaquira north of Bogota, Bernal inherited the love of two wheels from his father. He competed in his first race at age eight, and after excelling on the mountain bike he made the jump to road racing while setting aside plans to study communication.
His most difficult moment on a bike came during his professional debut in 2016 at the Tour of the Mediterranean in France.
"I had just moved from America to Europe, from the junior to the elite category, from mountain to road racing," Bernal recalled. "It was my first professional race and it was terrible. It was very cold and raining, and it was a very hard race. But I never lost confidence."
That self-belief was behind his victory last year at the Tour de l'Avenir, a race similar to the Tour for amateurs.
He joined Sky for this season and won the Colombia Oro y Paz race in February ahead of Quintana and last year's Tour runner-up, Rigoberto Uran.
Bernal was running a close second to Alejandro Valverde at the Tour of Catalonia before crashing on the final stage. But he rebounded by winning the Tour of California ahead of Tejay Van Garderen in May.
Sky then picked Bernal for its eight-man team to help Froome shoot for a fifth Tour title.
Bernal crashed near the end of Stage 1 and joined the scores of riders who wiped out on the tricky cobblestones of Roubaix on Stage 9. In the mountains, however, he's finishing stages among the top riders despite having spent his energy reserves helping his teammates.
Bernal crossed the line of the hilly Stage 13 ahead of Valverde and Mikel Landa, both pre-race contenders.
He currently sits 22nd overall after 15 stages.
Sky sports director Nicolas Portal said that while Bernal needs to improve his endurance, he expects even bigger things from him.
"We are really impressed," Portal said. "I am sure he is going be one of the big, big stars in the future."
Rival teams are also taking note.
"We have followed him and have seen what he is capable of," Movistar sports director Jose Luis Arrieta told The AP. "I am sure the future holds good things in store for him."
Bernal, however, is keeping his feet, if not on the round, then at least firmly on the pedals.
"If people ask if I want to win the Tour (one day), one thing is to say it and quite another thing is to do it," Bernal said. "I'm concentrating on the here and now, on finishing this Tour, staying focused, doing my job, and then time will tell."
AP writers Andrew Dampf and Ciaran Fahey contributed.
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