PARIS (AP) — On the Champs-Elysees fittingly bathed in the yellow of a golden dusk, a Tour de France for the ages crowned a champion of an unusually young age on Sunday: 22-year-old Egan Bernal, South America's first winner of cycling's greatest race.
"I cannot believe it. It's just incredible. I am sorry. I have no words," Bernal said through a translator. "I still can't understand what is happening to me."
The youngest champion of the post-World War II era, the slightly built Colombian with a killer instinct on the road, proved to be the strongest of the 176 strong men who roared off from the start in Brussels, Belgium, on July 6 on their 3,366-kilometer (2,092-mile) odyssey that delivered the most absorbing, drama-packed Tour in decades and a new cycling superstar in the making: Bernal.
Riding a yellow bike, and cheered by Colombian fans who were partying even before he sped up the famous avenue, Bernal crossed the line with his teammate Geraint Thomas, the 2018 champion who this year finished second. Steven Kruijswijk completed what Tour organizers said was the tightest podium in the 116-year history of the race, with just 1 minute, 31 seconds separating the first and third places after three weeks of racing.
The 21st and final stage was won in a sprint finish on the Champs-Elysees by Australian Caleb Ewan, the dominant sprinter of this Tour with three stage wins. Keeping with race tradition on its final day, the 155 riders who survived the Tour rode at a pedestrian pace and in a joyful atmosphere before hitting the Champs-Elysees. Bernal chatted with French rival Julian Alaphilippe and raised a glass of champagne as he rode.
The setting sun turned the avenue golden as Bernal and the pack sped on its cobblestones to the finish, where Bernal fell into the arms of his family.
Speaking in French before the start, Bernal thanked "France for organizing the most beautiful race in the world, and the most beautiful victory of my life."
While Colombia celebrated its new national hero, the millions of French fans who had lined the roads through east, central and southern France, and up into the thinning air of the Pyrenees and Alps, were ruing a bitter-sweet Tour.
First, their hearts soared with fabulous racing from French riders Alaphilippe, who held the iconic yellow jersey for 14 days, and Thibaut Pinot, who won on the first of seven 2,000-meter-plus (6,500-feet) peaks scaled by the highest Tour in history.
But joy turned to sorrow when Alaphilippe and Pinot's prospects of becoming France's first winner since 1985 were cruelly dashed just two days before the grand finale in Paris, on an epic Stage 19 where Mother Nature became a party-pooping guest. An almighty dump of torrential rain and hail severed the Tour route just as Bernal was succeeding in ripping the race lead off Alaphilippe, who'd clung to it like a kid with a favorite toy.
"Julian Alaphilippe made us dream," said Celestin Simon, a Parisian who cheered his hero on the Champs-Elysees in a pointy hat of French red, white and blue. "Unfortunately, there's no victory at the end."
Alaphilippe, more than anyone, first ignited and then stoked what will long be remembered as a Tour of fireworks. With his goatee beard and can't-catch-me attacks that rivals couldn't match, Alaphilippe embodied "panache," the old-school class so cherished by fans of the 116-year-old Tour.
Alaphilippe's enterprise first put him in yellow in Champagne country on Stage 3 and then, after he lost the lead on Stage 6, got him the jersey back on Stage 8, which he held through the Pyrenees and into the Alps.
And it was there that Bernal, raised at altitude in Colombia and at home in thinner air, struck and set Colombia into rapture.
"When I saw that he won, I said, 'I need to go with my music to support him,'" said clarinet-playing Colombian fan Sebastian Cortes, who traveled from Strasbourg in eastern France to party Sunday on the Champs-Elysees.
Bernal flew up the Tour's highest climb, the dizzying Iseran pass at 2,770 meters (9,088-feet) above sea level, demolishing what remained of Alaphilippe's lead on Stage 19 and building a sizeable one of his own.
The watch was then stopped, with Bernal way ahead, when the hailstorm suddenly coated the route with ice, amid fears that riders on tires barely wider than their thumbs could skid off into the rock- and ravine-scarred Alpine décor.
Compounding the misery for France, Pinot abandoned the race in tears, hobbled by a left-thigh muscle tear.
And that was that. The Tour that had been careening to a rock 'n' roll finish instead had the plug pulled on it. Landslides also truncated the last Alpine Stage 20, which still proved too long for the by-now exhausted Alaphilippe, who slipped off the podium entirely, despite getting words of encouragement in a call the previous night from French President Emmanuel Macron.
Thomas used the last Alpine climb to secure himself the runner-up spot in Paris, giving the Ineos team a podium 1-2 with Bernal. Third-placed Steven Kruijswijk, a Dutch Mr. Steady, pulled off the feat of being wholly unremarkable during the three weeks, while Alaphilippe, Pinot and Bernal and others rocked. Quite remarkably, none of the top four riders won a stage. Alaphilippe, in fifth, won two.
"I left my skin on the road these past weeks," Alaphilippe told French sports newspaper L'Equipe.
But instead of a red-white-and-blue celebration, Paris was instead being painted in Colombian red, blue and yellow.