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Bernal Completes Colombia’s Long Journey

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From the 80s to now, Tour glory was a nation’s destiny

Bernal leads Quintana on Stage 20
Getty Images

Egan Bernal’s victory lap on the Champs Elysées was a moment rife with meaning. For Team Ineos, it was a remarkable team achievement, winning a seventh Tour de France with a fourth different rider in the decade, an accomplishment that Cycling Twitter savored for about 15 seconds before asking who’s going to be the leader next year. For the veteran stars of the Tour, it was a grim spectre of being overtaken by youth... not just any youth, but the youngest rider in the entire race, and the youngest rider to win the Tour since 1909. Pretty much the youngest winner ever, by any standard that means anything in 2019. They heard he was good, they figured he would be a problem eventually... just not so soon.

All of that seems very sudden. Bernal has only been on Skineos for 18 months, riding only his second Tour de France (or grand tour of any kind), and wasn’t even scheduled to ride the Tour, having been originally programmed to lead the team at the Giro d’Italia. But Bernal cracked his collarbone and missed the Giro, while Chris Froome seriously hurt himself in training and they slotted Bernal in to his Tour spot. It was all very spontaneous and outside their plans.

But more than a short-term realignment, fans of a certain age (mine) can see Bernal’s win as something long in the making. The lineage of Colombian riders goes back a ways, and at this point it’s hard to think of another country (or continent, for that matter) more due for overall success in the race. I’m interested to hear a bit more from Bernal, if he cares to discuss it, about his connection to his predecessors. But whatever, maybe that’s not his thing... but it is mine.

Colombian cycling arrived in Europe in the early 1980s, when the Tour de France and other races were suddenly opening their doors wide to the world. Then it was via the Colombian national team, and almost as soon as it happened, they began to win. Alfonso Flórez took the 1980 Tour de l’Avenir in the first edition thrown open to the team, and this laid the groundwork for a Tour de France invite in 1983. By 1984 the team was now the Cafe de Colombia squad, having added Luis Herrera and Fabio Parra to the lineup, winning major races like the Dauphine right away, and planning something special for the 1985 Tour de France.

TDF 1987-CLIMB
Herrera back in polka dots, 1987
Photo credit should read /AFP/Getty Images

Following an inauspicious beginning by the Cafe de Colombia crew that July, including dropping six minutes in the team time trial, Herrera and Parra sunk further down the standings thanks to their time trial perfomance, such that nobody was taking an interest in them by week 2 of the Tour. I can’t tell you whether what happened next was aided by indifference from the GC crowd, but I can tell you that Parra and Herrera went on a climbing rampage that said very clearly something was up.

On stage 11, the Tour entered the Alps, and Herrera — already in polka dots — won the stage to Morzine just ahead of Bernard Hinault, on a day the Frenchman consolidated his lead. The next day, Parra won the stage, another Alps feast, shoulder to shoulder with Herrera, 38 seconds ahead of the nearest gringo. Neither was in the top ten on the standings yet, so a couple days later Herrera was able to get away for a second stage win to Saint-Etienne, with Parra 8th on the day and cracking the top ten on GC. In the Pyrénées, as Greg LeMond argued with his team for permission to go for glory with Stephen Roche, the pair finished second and third behind Pedro Delgado at Luz Ardiden, putting Herrera seventh overall and Parra 8th. The consolidated their positions the next day on the Col d’Aubisque (Herrera 4th), tossed away more time in the final ITT, and coasted into Paris as people of very great interest for future Tours. Parra won best young rider, Herrera king of the mountains.

TDF 1989-PODIUM
Parra, right, on the ‘88 podium
Photo credit should read /AFP/Getty Images

I can’t emphasize enough how impactful this was to me, and I would guess millions of others? If you are prone to mythologizing cycling performances, the sight of riders ascending up the Alps is the highest (non-cobbled) form of cycling glory, and the pure climbers have always evoked a unique response in fans, something beautiful beyond a time-managing crono specialist or a temperamental sprinter. The dream of cycling is best represented by Fausto Coppi (to pick one example) going on a five-mountain rampage over the continent’s most majestic peaks.

These Colombian guys could do that — hell, they came down from the clouds where they were born to compete on these middling European roads. They came from humble and somewhat exotic places to show these gringos what being a king of the mountains was really all about. They were the embodiment of the dream of cyclists taking flight.

Herrera would come slightly closer, 5th overall (plus another KOM jersey), in 1987, and Parra would go on to a historic podium finish (3rd) in 1988. Lucho would also become the first Colombian to win the Vuelta a España in 1987, the first non-European success there following LeMond’s historic 1986 Tour win. No doubt they faced all the challenges of living so far from home and by any reasonable standard, Herrera and Parra were tremendously successful, notching other notable wins like the Dauphiné along the way. If they didn’t win the Tour, well, it’s not exactly easy to do.

Following their (actually rather long) careers, European teams began signing Colombians, and a number of their countrymen won Tour stages. Riders like Chepe Gonzales, Oliverio Rincon, Nelson Rodriguez and Felix Cardenas all picked up single stage wins in the 90s and early 2000s. Santiago Botero made a stronger impression, now erased by the EPO fallout, and it wasn’t until Nairo Quintana came along that the conversation of Colombian Tour success was revived. Readers here don’t need a full blow-by-blow account of Quintana’s career, but suffice to say he burst into prominence in the 2013 Tour with his own Herrera-like ascension in the high mountains. He won a polka dot jersey, and then an historic Giro victory in 2014, the second non-European to do so, before matching Herrera’s Vuelta success in 2017. His two second places were high-water marks for Colombians at the Tour until this weekend. It hasn’t ever been quite enough, in the era of Team Sky, and Quintana’s career might be marked down as yet another outsider who didn’t round out his skillset enough to actually win the Tour. [Nobody dreams about Colombian time triallists, not yet anyway.] But he continued to lay the groundwork for Colombian riders and fans, preparing them for the day that finally came.

Cycling : 100th Tour de France 2013 / Stage 18
Young Nairo on Alpe d’Huez
Photo by Tim de Waele/Corbis via Getty Images

Quintana’s dad was a cycling fan in Nairo’s youth, and was inclined to support his son’s interest in the sport — almost certainly inspired by Herrera and Parra? And some newer guys along the way, and probably numerous others racing domestically. Surely the threads are there. Bernal, even younger, is the son of a former amateur racer. No doubt the inspirations of the past bled through the generations to Egan. Maybe he and Nairo and Stevie Chaves and Rigo Uran actually do sit around and talk about Herrera and Parra, or maybe they talk directly with them, face to face, at a weekly Colombian Cyclists Hall of Fame Group Ride. More likely they stay focused on the daily grind of training or racing, of nutrition and rest, and of not losing contact with the rest of their lives outside the sport. But the threads of the past are surely there.

Bernal’s win is the culmination of all of the past efforts. He is noticeably more well-rounded, time-trialling competently (or better) despite his size. He arrived via Italy, to an English team, showing language skills more polished than his predecessors. He is, essentially, the embodiment of Colombian cycling’s maturation from incoming curiosity to full-fledged member of the sport’s elite. Bernal’s success may seem instantaneous, but at the same time it’s been a long road to get here.

106th Tour de France 2019 - Stage 21
Bernal triumphant
Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images