Saint Flour (France) : After climbing beyond his rivals in solo attacks on two consecutive Alpine stages, Egan Bernal needs only survive a third one to seal victory in the 2019 Tour de France.
The 22-year-old, bidding to become the first Colombian to win the Tour, will face a weather-shortened stage on Saturday which culminates in an epic 33km uphill slog to the Val Torrens ski resort in the rarefied oxygen at 2,356m altitude.
Bernal, who grew up at 2,600m, has thrived at altitude, putting at least 27 seconds into all his rivals on Thursday, before dropping them again as he took the race lead on Friday.
If he survives Saturday, the Ineos co-captain would then just need to cross the line in the peloton at the end of the parade stage to Paris on Sunday to become the first Colombian to win cycling’s greatest prize.
“I love my bike, I love adrenalin and coming to these big exciting competitions,” said the man poised to become the youngest winner in the modern era and has a 48-second lead over previous yellow jersey holder Julien Alaphilippe.
On Friday, Bernal was racing hard and fast at the head of stage 19 when a violent hail storm and landslides forced scrambling organisers to halt his progress.
“I was going at great speed when they told me to stop and I said: ‘no way, not now, please’,” he said.
“But they told me it was okay, I was the new leader, and then I accepted it and pulled over,” said the youngest man on the race.
“I had to attack, I’m only 22 and if they had caught me it was no big deal. If I hadn’t attacked I’d have had to live with a thorn in my side,” said Bernal of his long-range strike.
“But we aren’t in Paris yet. But I feel like crying. Tomorrow will be hard and I will do everything to defend this.”
Christian Prudhomme, the Tour president, switched into crisis mode when told Bernal and British Vuelta a Espana champion Simon Yates were racing downhill towards a 50cm-deep pile of hail and shale on the road on Friday.
In a snap decision, the Tour halted the racing and declared the times at the preceding summit the official stage results. Organisers later said there would be no stage winner.
Bernal’s attack ended Alaphilippe’s Tour-defining run in the overall lead that had France dreaming of a first win since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
The style and manner of Alaphilippe’s swashbuckling attacks will live long in the memory.
Alone and seemingly outgunned, Alaphilippe nevertheless held Ineos, who have the far stronger climbing team and one goal, to win the Tour, at bay until Friday.
“I don’t think I can win the yellow jersey back now,” said Alaphilippe.
“I was beaten by something stronger than me.”
Defending champion Geraint Thomas, also of Ineos, is third overall at 1min 16sec off Bernal’s pace.
Earlier, France’s other yellow jersey hope Thibaut Pinot was also ruled ut.
Trailing behind the peloton in tears, Pinot pulled out an hour into the race, still suffering from the thigh injury picked up in a crash two days ago.
When he dismounted from his bike he ended a roller-coaster ride which included victory atop the first Pyrenean climb to the summit of La Col du Tourmalet, where his performance put him in the frame for a tilt at the title.