Colombia’s Egan Bernal is just 22 and later today will become the youngest-ever winner of the Tour de France – and also a national hero.

As he rides down the Champs-Elysees in yellow, his dad and fiancee watching, the cheers will be loudest in his cycling-mad home country – which has become transfixed by his mission to become the first Colombian to win what is one of the world’s toughest sports events.

But who is the man that Britain’s Bradley Wiggins and other experts say could now dominate the Tour de France for years?

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Bernal grew up in the mountains – in Zipaquira – a town 2,650m (8,700ft) up in the Andes, honing his skills on tough climbs and naturally learning to push his body in the thin air.

Egan Bernal
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Egan Bernal’s victory is set to spark a huge celebration in his home country
Egan Bernal
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Egan Bernal’s victory is set to spark a huge celebration in his home country

His talent was discovered at the age of eight when he joined a mountain bike class for underprivileged children run by the city government.

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“He was always disciplined and a hard worker. You never had to tell him to do something twice,” said Fabio Rodriguez, who coached the young Bernal and says he immediately realised he was special.

The young rider had the talent and the wiry physique to excel – today he weighs around 59kg (just over nine stone).

He underscored his potential by going to Europe as a teenager and notching up some impressive mountain bike performances, such as second in the world junior cross-county championships.

Colombians celebrate as they watch the Tour de France in Zipaquira, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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People in his home town of Zipaquira have been backing Bernal every step of the way
Egan Bernal Gomez of Colombia and Team Ineos is congratulated by teammate and title holder Geraint Thomas
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Welshman Geraint Thomas (R) says Bernal ‘is born to go fast uphill’

But incredibly, it wasn’t until 17 – just five years ago – that he turned to road racing.

His ascent to the top of the sport has been swift: joining Team Sky (now Team Ineos) at the start of 2018 from Italian team Androni, he won the Tour of California last year.

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“He’s such a well-balanced, super generous, kind, very giving individual, very concerned about everyone else,” says Team Ineos boss Dave Brailsford

“Yet he’s got this incredible winning streak inside him which has made him the champion that he already is.”

Girlfriend of Colombia's Egan Bernal, Xiomy Guerrero (L) and his father German Bernal
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Bernal’s fiancee and and his father have been in France supporting him

Bernal supported teammate Geraint Thomas for the Briton’s maiden Tour de France victory last year and surprised many by himself finishing 15th overall.

“The talent is there to see, he was born to go uphill fast,” Thomas said during this year’s event.

And now, it’s the Welshman who’s been supporting the Colombian’s push towards Paris.

Bernal’s childhood dream looked like becoming reality two days ago, when he took the overall lead for the first time after a hailstorm forced organisers to abandon one of the mountain stages.

 Egan Bernal
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Experts say Bernal may well go on to dominate the event in coming years
 Egan Bernal
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Bernal: ‘We used to watch the Tour on TV and we thought it was something unreachable’

Thomas says he’s advised his teammate to relish his big moment in Paris, telling him: “Enjoy it, soak it all up and don’t worry about crying, because all real men cry.”

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In Bernal’s home town, flag-waving crowds have been packing the Plaza of Hope to watch his progress, with some young cyclists watching in tears as their hero – thousands of miles away – hauled himself up the Alps.

The South American country has had cycling heroes before.

Luis “Lucho” Herrera in 1984 became the first of 12 Colombians to win a stage at the race; others from the country have worn the polka-dot “King of the Mountains” jersey.

Nairo Quintana finished second in 2013 and 2015 and is one of two Colombians behind Bernal in this year’s top 10.

But the jubilation in Colombia when Bernal crosses the line in Paris will take the country’s love of cycling to a new level.

Colombians were partying on the Champs Elysees hours before the riders' arrival
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Colombians were partying on the Champs Elysees hours before the riders’ arrival

“I feel this is not only my triumph but the triumph of a whole country,” said Bernal, speaking with just the final processional stage to go, where riders traditionally go unchallenged

The 22-year-old’s father – himself once a semi-pro cyclist – and his fiancee Xiomy Guerrero are in France supporting him.

“My dad couldn’t talk at first but when he managed, he congratulated me,” said Bernal of his impending victory.

“He was about to cry. For us, it’s a dream. We used to watch the Tour on TV and we thought it was something unreachable.

“As a kid, you think ‘How cool it would be to be there one day’, but it looked so far away. Here we are and I’m very emotional.”

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