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    Tour de France champion Egan Bernal returns to hero’s welcome in Colombia

    Aug 8, 2019
    PHOTO: AP

    ZIPAQUIRA, Colombia — Thousands of screaming fans held a victory party for Tour de France champion Egan Bernal in his Colombian hometown on Wednesday, celebrating the first Latin American to win cycling's most prestigious race.

    Bernal rode his bike into the central square of Zipaquira wearing the Tour de France's iconic yellow jersey while some 3,000 supporters dressed in the same color chanted his name.

    The 22-year-old won the Tour last month ahead of Ineos teammate and defending champion Geraint Thomas, becoming the youngest rider to win the race since World War II.

    Bernal's victory has been widely celebrated in Colombia, which has produced several world-class riders but had never won the Tour.

    As Bernal flew home from Europe, a Colombian airline crew spotted him on their plane and celebrated his presence with a toast and free champagne for passengers. Then he was flown in a helicopter to his hometown of Zipaquira, about 30 miles (50 kilometers) outside Bogota, Colombia's capital.

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    "If someone would've come to my neighborhood a few years ago and told me I was going to win the Tour de France, I wouldn't have believed it," Bernal said on a stage set up for the party that was decorated in yellow, with fresh flowers arranged in the shape of a bicycle. "Today I feel very proud to be Colombian and bring the yellow jersey home."

    Bernal's victory especially resonates with the residents of neglected mountainous areas, which are home to the country's top riders.

    Bernal grew up in Zipaquira, an oxygen-starved town about 9,200 feet (2,800 meters) above sea level. His father was a security guard at the local tourist attraction, a salt mine that houses a large cathedral. His mother labored at a local flower farm.

    Bernal's friends said he set ambitious goals from an early age, training hard to make it onto the international cycling circuit, and benefiting from training in the high altitude of Colombia's mountains.

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    "He had an insatiable hunger for victory," said Felix Baron, a childhood friend and professional cyclist who drove two hours from his farm to attend Bernal's victory party. "He is like an eagle that puts his eye on a goal and doesn't let go."

    As a teenager, Bernal enrolled in a local college to study journalism, but a mentor convinced him to drop his studies and devote his time to cycling after seeing his potential. The mentor promised to pay for Bernal's university studies if his sports career floundered.

    Bernal won several regional mountain bike competitions and then focused on road cycling. He first started to race in Europe with Androni, an Italian squad that signed him at age 18.

    On Wednesday, Zipaquira Mayor Luis Rodriguez described Bernal as an example for Colombian youth.

    "Thanks to you, they have seen that great triumphs are possible, with humility and hard work," he said. "With your pedaling, you made our hearts vibrate at the same rhythm."

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    Bernal was asked if his new status as Tour de France champion could unleash a leadership battle within his Ineos team.

    The squad has been captained in most major races by Chris Froome, who has won the Tour four times, and it could soon sign Giro d'Italia champion Richard Carapaz.

    Bernal said he would be happy to support Froome or any other teammate in future races if that is what his team asks him to do. But he said he would also love to bring another Tour victory to Colombia.

    "In the end, the road puts everyone in their rightful place," Bernal said. "I just want to enjoy this Tour victory, and continue to ride, because this is what I love to do."

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    PHOTO: AP
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