Egan Bernal might never win the Tour de France again – a recap of stages 16-21 of the 2019 Tour de France

Egan Bernal (all images via YouTube)

Team Ineos’s 22-year-old Colombian rider Egan Bernal won the Tour de France and everyone instantly agreed that he’d win the next 10 editions – just as they’d agreed that Nairo Quintana would definitely – definitely – win one day after he finished second the very first time he rode the race in 2013.

Quintana still hasn’t improved on that runner-up spot and it doesn’t feel like he ever will. Bernal probably will win again, but three-week racing is a funny thing. Geraint Thomas, who came second, said he couldn’t prepare as well this year because of all the irrelevant shit that comes with being a Tour winner. There will be new challenges for Bernal.

Julian Alaphilippe dropped to fifth in the end. He was given the combativity award, which is basically the race’s way of saying “you’re The People’s Champion”. He could contest the race even more effectively next year, if he wants to.

For his part, Thibaut Pinot got injured, which wasn’t how anyone wanted that particular story to end.

So how did the final week pan out? Three stages mattered. These are they.

The Alps

The riders went high and it was different.

The week started with Julian Alaphilippe in the race lead. He cruised through stages 16 and 17 with no great alarms, but then they hit the Alps.

Stage 18 had three summits over 2,000m. The biggest was the third, the Col du Galibier at 2,642m. From there, it was downhill to the finish.

The day’s breakaway comprised 34 riders, one of whom was Nairo Quintana, who was by this point almost 10 minutes behind Alaphilippe. His team, Movistar, are a bit fed up with his underwhelming performances and his dad says he’s leaving at the end of the season. Halfway through the stage, his team-mates were working on the front of the peloton, essentially reeling him in.

It all smacked of passive-aggressive in-fighting, but it seemed to give the Colombian an edge because he skipped away on the Galibier, never to be seen again. He won by 1m35s.

There’s a thing in cycling where people talk about Colombian riders like they’re a different species. A lot of them grow up at altitude, but studies have shown this doesn’t actually change physiology long term. Maybe no-one’s told them this because they quite often ride like it does. Quintana’s countryman, Bernal, also belted away from everyone like riding a bike uphill with less oxygen is no big thing.

Alaphilippe was dropped by the group of favourites, but descended with minimal regard for his own wellbeing and caught them before the finish. In the end, the only real change was that Bernal gained 30s and leapfrogged Thomas into second.

Floods of tears and debris

Imagine that you’ve always wanted to win the Tour de France and spent years training to win the Tour de France and you’ve finally got yourself into a position where you really, strongly believe that you’re probably going to win the Tour de France only to tear a thigh muscle.

You wouldn’t be very happy, would you? Thibaut Pinot tried to ride on, but I’ll tell you one of the things you absolutely need to win the Tour de France: working thigh muscles.

A team-mate gave him a hug and told him it was over. Pinot started crying and got in the team car. A cameraman tried to get some close-ups. The guy from the team car surreptitiously kicked the cameraman in the bollocks and then brushed him away/shoved him over while getting back into the vehicle.

Other than that, the stage was pure Tour de France. Few events are less reliant on the athletes for drama and mountain weather was the key player on stage 19.

Bike-racing-wise, everything kicked off what had initially seemed super-early but later transpired to be nothing of the sort.

On the Col d’Iseran, Geraint Thomas attacked and Julian Alaphilippe immediately ran out of energy. All of the other overall contenders caught Thomas, at which point Bernal attacked and won the Tour de France.

There was supposed to be a long descent and then 8km of climbing after the Iseran, but carpets of hailstones, mudslides and rockfalls persuaded the organisers to say, ‘okay, let’s call it a day.’

While no-one officially “won” stage 19, times were taken at the top of the Iseran. Bernal had, with hindsight, timed his move to perfection.

Things would have turned out differently had the stage run to its full length, but judging by how the riders performed on the Iseran, there’s every chance Bernal would merely have won the race by even more.

One last climb

Stage 20 was shortened in advance. It was supposed to be 130km, but because of the bike-unfriendly roads, they hacked out a couple of climbs and it ended up just 59km long. Very short – until you consider that 33.4 of those kilometres were uphill to Val Thorens.

Other than Vincenzo Nibali getting in the break and winning the stage, events were fairly predictable. (Nibbles had acknowledged the previous day’s early finish by getting a bit of practice in ahead of the Italian Gesturing Olympics. (Other than Peter Sagan’s pronunciation of ‘Champs Élysées’, I think this was my highlight of the Tour.))

Julian Alaphilippe folded early and Bernal and Thomas edged a few more seconds ahead of Steven Kruijswijk, who finished third overall. Not much else to report really.

Kudos to Alejandro Valverde though, who sprinted for second place on the stage in true incapable-of-not-being-competitive Valverde fashion. It wasn’t as good as the petty fourth-placed sprint he delivered on the final mountain stage in 2015, but it was a nice reference to it.

Final standings

Who could beat Bernal next year?

Even if he’s fit and firing, Bernal’s no shoo-in. Primoz Roglic has potential, Tom Dumoulin has class and Julian Alaphilippe could certainly compete given either a different course or a slightly different way of training and racing.

Plus, Bernal might even have Chris Froome in the same team. Chris Froome’s a pretty tidy rider when he doesn’t have a broken leg.

What’s next?

The final Grand Tour of the year, the Vuelta a Espana, starts on August 24.

I’ll be doing a preview and three weekly recaps. You can sign up to get them emailed to you here.