By Julien Pretot
COL DU GRAND COLOMBIER, France (Reuters) - Defending champion Egan Bernal was at a loss to explain the brutal failure that ruled him out of contention on the Tour de France in the 15th stage on Sunday.
The 23-year-old Colombian was suddenly dropped by the main group of favourites in the ascent to the Col du Grand Colombier, a 17.4-km effort at an average gradient of 7.1%, and he never managed to fight his way back, losing 7:20 on the line.
Now out of the top 10, the Ineos-Grenadiers team leader conceded he could not even dream of a podium finish in Paris.
"I really don't think the podium is an option, I don't even know how far behind I finished," an exhausted Bernal told reporters after his 174.5-km ordeal in the Jura mountains.
"I just need to go to the team bus, rest, rethink the race and see what the team wants."
Bernal had been struggling since the beginning of the Tour and Sunday came as a terrible confirmation of his shortcomings.
"I was suffering in the first climb already, I think I lost three years of my life today, I was going full gas hoping for a miracle that didn't come," he said.
"I did everything, gave my best but the others were better and I could not follow.
"Even if I started the last climb with the other GC (general classification) riders I felt I would be dropped, I wanted to give my best, not just for me, but for the team and for the respect I have for the race.
"There's no excuses, I tried to fuel my body in the best way possible, but I don’t know, I didn’t have the legs. The other riders have been stronger than me and we have to accept that."
Bernal pulled out of the Criterium du Dauphine with back pains last month and while he still feels some discomfort, the Colombian would not use it as an excuse.
"It's not the best way to start the Tour, I've had back pains everyday but it's more the legs that are a problem, it's something I have to look into," he said.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Christian Radnedge)