Team Sky's 21-year-old Egan Bernal lines up as the youngest rider on the 2018 Tour de France after a sensational rise to the top.

LA ROCHE-SUR-YON, France (AFP) — Team Sky’s 21-year-old Egan Bernal lines up as the youngest rider on the 2018 Tour de France after a sensational rise to the top that has thrust the “future champion” into the limelight.

A coach at his former team Androni Giocattoli, where he turned professional at 19, said of the Colombian: “An Egan Bernal comes along every 20 years.”

He joined Sky this season and it must have been music to the ears of his new boss Dave Brailsford to hear Bernal, who oozes a quiet, powerful confidence, speak so modestly of himself and so highly of his teammates, as he did this week.

Bernal won two mountain stages on his way to victory at the Tour de L’Avenir in 2017. This year he won the Amgen Tour of California ahead of a strong field that included Briton Adam Yates, also at the Tour de France, fourth more than two minutes adrift.

That led Sky to change plans and bring forward Bernal’s grand tour debut. “I was supposed to do la Vuelta this season but after California, they called me and asked me to ride the Tour,” he told AFP after a team press conference. “I felt just great.”

“I’m going to learn a lot,” he said of joining a Sky lineup that includes Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas. “I’m here with a good team, I’m with guys with a lot of experience.”

Bernal laughed off the belief of some observers that he could even win the Tour.

“I really don’t think so. I have some good results but compare them to Froomey and Thomas. “I’m really attached to Froomey and I want to help him, make him proud.”

“This is the biggest race in the world and this will be my first big race,” he explained. “I have a lot of respect for Froomey, I think he’s one of the best in the world, so, at the start of this Tour. I’m just thinking about helping him.

“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.”

For the race itself, Bernal said the three weeks were unpredictable, but there was nothing for him to fear, at least not the fabled cobbles on the road to Roubaix.

“I’ve never raced over cobbles but I was there five days ago and I’m not afraid of that,” says the 21-year-old who has a quiet strength in his gaze that suggests he fears nothing.

Bernal is a former journalism student whose father was the caretaker at the Salt Cathedral of Zipaquira built inside a Colombian salt mine.

On Saturday, Bernal starts on his first major tour as the youngest of the 176 riders from 22 eight-men teams on a fascinating journey that promises to stretch well beyond three weeks around France.