Is Egan Bernal The Tour's Top Contender?

Fast-emerging Colombian all-rounder Egan Bernal can take centre stage at the 2019 Tour de France in the absence of his injured Team Ineos leader Chris Froome with even the race organisers backing the 22-year-old for a tilt at the title.

Bernal joined Sky, now Ineos, in 2018 and on the back of an immediate win at the Tour of California was drafted into last year's Tour de France, where he vowed to learn everything he could from four-time winner Froome.

Impressed with his astonishing progress, Ineos made Bernal team leader for May's Giro d'Italia but a fall ruled him out, and when Froome himself suffered a dreadful fall in June, Bernal's stock took a sharp rise.

"They've been talking about him since he won the Tour de L'Avenir two years ago," Tour de France chief Christian Prudhomme told AFP this week.

"Then at Paris-Nice in March, Bernal took the yellow jersey and was presented with it by (all time great) Eddy Merckx!

"It was a hugely signifiant moment, and made one think about what might come in the future, and now the future is coming, it's this July."

Prudhomme pointed out that it was 50 years since Merckx won his first Tour, and that he felt maybe Bernal could take up the baton the great Belgian once carried so bravely.

"I also noted how marvellously polite he is," Prudhomme said of the 22-year-old.

"Of course he's brilliantly talented too, there's no doubt about it.

"There is the question of how will he do over three long weeks with the colossal pressure that you can't imagine until you actually have the yellow jersey on your back. I'm not sure how he might feel.

"But I can tell you that last year, in the final week he was still there, at just 21 years old, helping Chris Froome at altitudes over 2000m."

Froome Disciple

Once considered a pure climber, Bernal has proved he can cut it not only with the burlier riders in a rolling section in a cross-wind, but also in a time-trial, and seems to be able to preserve energy to close out key stages.

A coach at his former team Androni Giocattoli, where he turned professional at 19, said of the Colombian: "An Egan Bernal comes along every twenty years".

When Sky signed and raced him on the 2018 Tour AFP asked him what he expected from it.

"I'm going to learn a lot," he said of joining the lineup that included Froome and Geraint Thomas. "I'm here with a good team, I'm with guys with a lot of experience.

"I'm really attached to Froomey and I want to help him, make him proud.

"One day, when he's finished, maybe he'll see that I learned from him and he will feel proud," Bernal said. "That's what I want."

On Saturday, Bernal starts on his second major tour where he can become the youngest post-war winner of the Tour, 100 years after the introduction of the yellow jersey and 50 years after Eddy Merckx won his first Tour.

He will also be just one of 176 riders from 22 eight-men teams on a fascinating journey that promises to stretch well beyond three weeks around France.

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