Bizarre, bold and beautiful, this was no ordinary Tour de France - Jaime Bonetti Zeller

Bizarre, bold and beautiful, this was no ordinary Tour de France

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PARIS — No one knew it on the climb of the Col de l’Iseran last Friday, but thanks to weather — the ultimate referee — the 2019 Tour de France was about to be decided by a penalty kick.

It may forever be labeled anticlimactic after a tight race that was often electrifying in the run of play, but Egan Bernal’s victory also felt both inevitable and merited on the road. He buried his shot, hard and high and true. No one was going to get in the way of his goal.

Bernal’s attack in the Alps, just before a sudden storm short-circuited the action, nailed down a seventh Tour title in the past eight years for Team Ineos, formerly Team Sky.

The past three have been won by men so different they seem to have been chosen by casting call: the enigmatic four-time champion Chris Froome, whose serious crash while scouting a time trial last month ended his season; the amiable, self-deprecating Geraint Thomas, who had to settle for second in Paris; and the reedy, soulful-eyed, 22-year-old Bernal, who lowered his face into his hands and wept when he knew he’d taken over the lead.

He recovered his equilibrium well before Sunday’s start and didn’t look at all fazed when a French television reporter asked him to speak a few words to the millions watching — in his fourth language, after Spanish, Italian and English.

“Thank you for the best race, and the best victory of my life,” Bernal said in French. Later, from the podium, he conveyed his appreciation in all four languages, confirming his status as citizen of the world.

Early success doesn’t always guarantee longevity in cycling, but Bernal, strikingly mature and stunningly gifted, is being chaperoned by the wealthiest, most stacked team in the sport.

Ineos’ recent hegemony has been so overwhelming that even its stars can get confused. “To be 1-2 — that’s the first time we’ve done that as a team,” Thomas told reporters Saturday, then realized his mistake. “No, it’s not, is it. It’s the second time. First time since 2012. Pretty good achievement.”

But this campaign was different, and not just because of Bernal’s youth, or the fact that he was the first Colombian to win the Tour, more than 30 years after his predecessors first began making their presence known in the elite peloton.

Ineos had to navigate some unaccustomed rough patches before and during the Tour. Thomas took three spills en route to Paris and somehow escaped harm. Road captain Luke Rowe was tossed from the Tour by officials after a Stage 17 altercation with Jumbo-Visma’s Tony Martin. The team’s support riders looked less invincible than usual.

In previous years, the team’s most vexing problems at the Tour generally involved trying to fend off questions about doping that trail any dominant force in cycling. The British team has been heavily scrutinized since its inception as a “zero tolerance” organization that subsequently has had its medical ethics and practices investigated and lambasted by journalists, anti-doping and government authorities.

This counterclockwise trip around France wasn’t marked by overt accusations against any team. (For the fourth year running, no positive tests were announced during the Tour, a statistic that can be parsed in many ways.)

Instead, the wild card was the exuberantly disruptive ride of France’s Julian Alaphilippe, who held the overall leader’s yellow jersey for 14 days, flouting the stereotype that he couldn’t withstand the topography and pressure of a three-week race.

French fans’ yearning for their first champion in 35 years went unfulfilled, but Alaphilippe “was the reason the race was raced so differently,” as Thomas said.

However, Sunday belonged to Bernal, born and raised in the town of Zipaquira (elevation: 8,690 feet) just north of Bogota in central Colombia. Fans from his home country amassed hours ahead of time on the Champs-Elysees, transforming it with their own tricolor flag, which conveniently includes bright yellow.

Bernal was plucked from the junior mountain biking ranks by Italy’s flamboyant elder statesman Gianni Savio, who has long cultivated a pipeline of talent from South America.

Following an impressive road cycling stint with a lower-level Italian team, Bernal was snapped up by the team then known as Sky, and promptly racked up several significant results, including the 2018 Tour of California title.

After Bernal won the Gibraltar Road climb outside Santa Barbara to take the overall lead in California, reporters clustered around him in a small tent set up for interviews. He spoke shyly yet with nuance in English, which he’d just begun to learn, clearly a quick study.

Sky extended Bernal’s contract for another five years at the end of the 2018 season, further deepening a roster that already counted two Tour de France champions — a luxury no other team could afford.

But money buys talent, not luck. Bernal has been sidelined three separate times by crashes since March of last year. The scariest, a face-first collision in a pileup at the Clasica San Sebastian in August 2018, caused a brain bleed and necessitated extensive dental reconstruction. He resumed racing that October, but broke his collarbone in a training accident in May before the 2019 Giro d’Italia and had to scratch.

With Thomas in less than optimal form here, the moment Bernal seized to step on the throat of this Tour — aiming himself at the highest mountain pass in the race — was logical. Then chaos ensued.

Tour officials were forced to ad-lib when cloudbursts sent torrents of mud and water cascading across the Stage 19 course and dumped hail so thick it looked like fresh snowfall from the air. Bernal and others racing on the descent of the Iseran were instructed to slow and then stop, a command he understandably found incomprehensible until it was repeated in Spanish.

There was no ideal solution for a situation the French call jamais vu, or never before seen. (Severe weather on the same mountain pass prompted officials to shorten a stage in the 1996 Tour, but that decision was made before the start.) The multinational race jury elected to default to the hand-timed gaps taken at the summit of the Iseran, the day’s second-to-last climb. Alaphilippe lost his lead and Bernal was rewarded for his calculated early raid.

Everyone knew it was coming. The Iseran tops out at 9,000 feet, Bernal’s natural habitat. He had already shown his climbing form was superior to anyone else’s in the Tour. Still, the abridged stage spawned hypotheticals about what would have happened on the planned uphill finale at Tignes.

Other contenders arguably would have saved their legs for the final climb. And Alaphilippe might have reeled in some time had he been able to dive downhill with the same breathtaking joie de la vitesse he displayed on the descent of the Col du Galibier the day before. But he later admitted he knew it was likely only a matter of time before he blew a gasket when the road went upward again. That is exactly what happened Saturday in an abbreviated 37-mile gallop to Val Thorens. Alaphilippe’s podium hopes began to vaporize 8 miles from the summit, and he wound up fifth.

France had been nurturing optimism on two fronts as the Tour’s third week unfurled. Thibaut Pinot, the Groupama-FDJ leader who finished third in 2014, was only 20 seconds shy of Bernal’s time and looked formidable in the Pyrenees. His fortunes and mood swings registered daily on the French national thermometer, mirroring the 40-degree range of the actual temperatures during the Tour.

But a muscle tear forced Pinot to exit the race in the Alps, crushed and weeping, the fourth DNF of the seven Tours he’s started. A cartoonist for the national sports daily L’Equipe drew the outline of France swaddled in bandages to represent a nation bleeding on his behalf.

In his best moments, Pinot finally seemed unambivalent about wanting to win his home race, a proposition more complicated than it seems for an introspective athlete. He pledged to return within hours of dismounting. “I found I needed the Tour to enjoy myself,” he said of watching it from afar last year, sidelined by illness.

This Tour, until the very end, featured shifting expectations and a sense of what-the-heck, encouraging gambits so crazy they just might work. The result circled back to a familiar point. It’s up to all the other teams in the field to decide whether this July has emboldened them or not.

About Jaime Bonetti Zeller

Jaime Bonetti Zeller is an investment professional and entrepreneur with businesses in multiple industries. He is president of Servicios Consulares Eurodom, the local partner in the Caribbean region for VFS Global, a leader global outsourcing and technology services specialist for diplomatic missions and governments worldwide. Jaime Bonetti Zeller also started the company Sofratesa de Panama inc., an organization in the engineering services industry located in Panama City.