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PostSports Tuesday: Egan Bernal Wins Tour de France (David Duggan, USA, 07/30/19 3:59 am)
Sports fans tuning in the last eight days must have been hit with a sense of anti-climax, wondering where the drama in sports is these days. First, at the British Open, played at Northern Ireland's Royal Portrush course, someone named Shane Lowry won by 6 strokes, the biggest margin in nine years. Second, at the Tour de France, Egan Bernal, the first Colombian (and South American) to win, took advantage of a mid-stage Friday mudslide to beat the home-country favorite, Julian Alaphilippe.
At Portrush, the first time the Open had been played off the England-Scotland landmass in my 67-year lifetime, Lowry, who's from "Southern Ireland," coasted to victory in the last round after carding a 3d round 63, the course record. With a four-stroke lead, he kept Irish eyes smiling by not pulling a "van de Velde," a 72nd-hole meltdown which French golfer (what?) Jean van de Velde did 20 years ago when, needing only a double-bogey 6 to win, he dumped his drive into the water at Carnoustie's 18th, and made a triple 7, earning him the opportunity to lose in a playoff to Scotsman Paul Lawrie.
With a build more suitable for Australian rules football (heartily played in Ireland), the 6'1", 225 lb. Lowry (that's 16-stone, for those looking to hurl the caber), has a full beard and hearkens back to the 19th Century of the Open, when guys like "Old Tom" Morris whacked their mashies and niblicks around converted sheep pastures made into "golfe courses" hitting gutta percha balls toward the pin. His claim to fame before being crowned the "Champion Golfer of 2019" was that he had won the Irish Open as an amateur in 2009. Four years ago, he won something called the Bridgestone Invitational held at rubber-capital Akron, Ohio's Firestone Course. Japanese Bridgestone acquired Firestone Tires in 1988 a year after Lowry was born. Still, the game of golf needs someone born in this century to get people excited. Annual rounds played have been declining for at least a decade.
The hopes of an entire nation were riding on Frenchman Alaphilippe's saddle when he had taken the "Maillot Jaune" (yellow jersey) at stage three. No native-born poilu had won the TdF since Bernard Hinault in 1985 (although Greg LeMond, who had Frenchified his name at birth to capitalize the middle M, won in 1990, a year after his 1989 epic finish in an individual time-trial overcoming a 50 second deficit to win by eight seconds). Cycling enthusiasts had thought that Alaphilippe would cave in the mountains, and this year's course featured seven climbs to more than 2500 meters, the most in the 106 years of running the greatest stage race in the world (since 1903, with times out for World Wars). But Alaphilippe, whose Guy Fawkes facial hair and refusal to learn English makes him the perfect antihero to last year's winner Welshman Geraint Thomas, kept the lead until the 19th stage (third-to-the-last) to the impossible-to-reach Albertville (home of the 1992 Winter Olympics). There, his and his nation's hopes crashed when Thibaut Pinot (the subject of my high school French learning tapes, fathered by a grape?) dropped from the race after an injury, and the stage was cut short because of mud slides onto the course. Watch the slides on YouTube for a truly frightening experience. The stage was due to end at Haute Savoie's Col d'Iseran, the highest paved road in Europe at a hair more than 9,000 feet. Bernal was ahead of Alaphilippe by a minute when race officials stopped the stage 20 kms from the summit.
Bernal, at 22 the youngest winner in 110 years, by definition also won the best young rider jersey (white). Perhaps better known for non-performance enhancing illegal substances and a nearly endless civil war, Colombia is actually a hotbed of cycling activity. Years ago, the "Colombian Coffee" cycling jersey featuring Juan Valdez was the most popular jersey bought at retail. Fellow Colombian Nairo Quintana took 2d in the 2013 and 2015 TdFs. With light and lean bodies, the Colombians are tailor-made for the mountain stages where the TdF is often won or lost. As I was watching the final stage race into Paris, the peloton doing an insane 60 clicks (close to 40 mph) over the cobblestones ringing L'Arc de Triomphe and down the Champs Elysees, I thought of how far cycling popularity had fallen since the days of Lance Armstrong and LeMond. Whether a new generation of riders from other continents will stimulate interest, the same way that Europeans like Bjorn Borg and Ilie Nastase got people interested in tennis in the 1970s, which for nearly 20 years had been largely an Australian sport with the occasional American thrown in, remains to be seen. But for now, I've got a month-long dry spell of second-tier sporting activity until tennis' US Open starts in late August. With the golf gods having moved the PGA tournament from August to May, golf has become a late summer who-cares sport just like cycling.
JE comments: Colombia always needs heroes, and it's found one. I see on Wikipedia that Bernal is from Zipaquirá, about an hour north of Bogotá. Zipaquirá is famous for its underground Salt Cathedral, where the cycling phenomenon's father works. I just may have met him (dad) when I visited the Cathedral in 2006. Young Egan was 9 at the time.
With mountains everywhere and mild weather, Colombia is a natural for "extreme" cycling.