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Bernal proves he can win under fire at Paris-Nice

Sky's young Colombian prodigy Egan Bernal impresses at Paris-Nice, cool under fire and strong on all terrain from crosswinds to high mountains.

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Egan Bernal (Sky) hit another milestone Sunday by winning Paris-Nice. It was not only his first WorldTour stage race victory on European roads, but the GC win also counted as the 10th in his young and already prolific career.

At 22, he won Paris-Nice at a younger age than the likes of Eddy Merckx (23) or Alberto Contador (24).

Beyond those statistics, Bernal’s gripping victory proves that the 22-year-old Colombian can handle the pressure of leadership and deliver.

“I can’t believe that I just won Paris-Nice,” Bernal gushed at the line in Nice. “It’s incredible for me. I just cannot believe it yet.”

By Monday, that reality should have sunk in. And the victory hints that perhaps Bernal is even better than anyone could have dreamed.

Though he started the race as co-leader with Michal Kwiatkowski, who finished third overall, Bernal emerged from eight days of intense racing with his aura as a natural winner looming ever larger.

Bernal proved cool under fire throughout the weeklong Paris-Nice. First, he deftly survived the harrowing crosswinds in the opening stages, and then had the legs in the time trial and decisive Col de Turini summit finale. It was on Sunday, with Nairo Quintana and Movistar throwing everything into the final stage shootout, that Bernal proved he is a winner.

Quintana, 29, and Bernal represent both the present and future of Colombian racing, if not the entire peloton. Their clash over the weekend revealed much about today, tomorrow, and the future.

Bernal held steady on the decisive Col de Turini summit finish, staying with Quintana all the way to the top. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Quintana wanted desperately to deliver the home run, and Movistar went all-in with a thrilling tactic in the climb-heavy finale around the mountains north of Nice. Movistar slotted three riders into early moves, including defending champion Marc Soler, and Quintana bolted clear on the stage’s hardest climb at Peille with just under 50km to go. Things were looking good for a “Froomigal-style” raid, with Quintana picking up a three-second time bonus mid-race and he counted on some help from equally ambitious stage-hunters in the group. Quintana even rode into the “virtual” race leader’s jersey with less than 30 minutes to race. Movistar was putting maximum pressure on the largely untested Bernal.

Bernal didn’t take the bait. While its young Colombian charge might not have the experience of defending and controlling a major stage race, Team Sky certainly does. Bernal could look around and count some of the most experienced domestiques in the bunch. Luke Rowe and Kwiatkowski have both helped Sky win the Tour de France. Sebastian Henao, Tao Geoghegan Hart, Ivan Sosa, and Jhonatan Narváez rounded out the defensive lines. Team Sky is so good at building a GC fortress, all Bernal had to do was not crack.

That’s no easy feat at 22, but he proved yet again he has the mental prowess to match his physical gifts. Instead of panicking or getting lured into the Movistar trap, Bernal wisely relied upon his experienced Sky teammates to control the race.

“When some of the GC riders started to attack, I knew I could follow them,” Bernal said. “I also know that I have a really strong team that can control these races. It wasn’t too hard to be calm.”

Instead of Quintana, Bernal becomes the third Colombian to win Paris-Nice, following Carlos Betancur (2014) and Sergio Henao (2017). Bernal downplayed any hint of a growing rivalry with Quintana, calling him an inspiration to the entire Colombian peloton and insisted that they are friends off the bike.

“Nairo was really strong, but I have a really strong team,” Bernal said. “When Quintana attacked, I thought if I followed, then after that, I might be alone. I preferred to wait a little bit and stay calm.”

Quintana, however, didn’t leave empty-handed. He clawed his way onto the podium and put everyone on notice that he’s ready to fight in 2019. Time trialing remains Quintana’s Achilles heel, and he ceded too much time in Thursday’s 25.5km time trial. He couldn’t drop Bernal on Saturday, so he had no choice but to try to blow up the race Sunday.

Though Quintana’s attempted coup fell short, he read it as a victory in many ways.

“We didn’t win, but we tried all we could,” Quintana said. “The takeaway is positive for me — my body feels very good for the upcoming big races and we’re doing the right things in the race. And I continue to enjoy racing a lot, which is the most important thing.”

If Quintana was content, it’s Bernal who leaves Paris-Nice with the wind at his back.

The prestigious “Race to the Sun” win is another important milestone in his already impressive development, and it sets him up for his highly anticipated debut at the Giro d’Italia as an outright team leader.

Ever humble, Bernal was quick to point out that Paris-Nice — at eight stages — is quite a different beast than a three-week grand tour. Though he goes to the Giro this spring with a lot of hype, Bernal says he is only expecting to learn what it takes to race to win for three weeks and downplayed his chances of winning the overall. That’s what he’s been saying since last year.