After Adam Yates abandoned his GC hopes at the Tour de France and suffered through a week of climbing in the Alps, Tuesday’s stage 16 looked like a perfect opportunity for the Mitchelton-Scott climber.
Yates had made the final break and they were inside the final 20 kilometers of racing, so he attacked. But the Brit had to do more than simply out-climb his breakaway companions. He had to fend off ace descender and polka-dot jersey wearer Julian Alaphilippe on the treacherous Col du Portillon descent. Yates rolled the dice and he paid the price.
“My morale is pretty damaged right now,” Yates said after the stage. He crashed midway down to the finish in Bagneres-de-Luchon, saw Alaphilippe fly by, and witnessed his hopes of a career-first Tour stage win vanish with the slip of a tire.
“When you come so close to winning a stage of the Tour, it’s pretty devastating,” Yates added after the 218-kilometer race. “Not just for me but for the whole team. We’ve been working for a while now hunting stages and when you come that close it’s hard.”
Up until that fateful right-hand switchback, Yates had made all the right moves. The breakaway was sure to succeed with Alaphilippe chasing king of the mountains points and other riders like Bauke Mollema (Trek-Segafredo) and Gorka Izagirre (Bahrain-Merida) keen to win a stage. Plus, the peloton of GC favorites was tentatively wading into the Pyrenees on this first stage after Monday’s rest day. They were waiting for Wednesday’s decisive stage 17.
Despite attacks later in the stage, which got progressively harder in the second half, it seemed clear the Portillon would be decisive for the six-man breakaway.
Yates knew what he was up against in an on-form Alaphilippe who’d already won a stage this Tour.
“Yeah he’s pretty good isn’t he?” Yates said. “I raced him back in U23s and he’s good. I had a healthy lead and I’m pretty confident on the descent itself, but one of the things is, you mess one corner and you go down.”
Over the top of the final Cat. 1 climb, Yates had a small gap. Alaphilippe had attacked from behind and was closing fast.
Mitchelton-Scott director Matt White could tell that his 25-year-old rider was taking every risk to avoid facing Alaphilippe in a sprint finish at the bottom of the hill.
“There was a lot of pressure on Adam to ride that descent because you have seen the last couple of weeks, [Alaphilippe] has made up a lot of time on the descents,” White said. “That put Adam under a lot of pressure to take some risks on the descent.
“We knew [Alaphilippe] was coming and everyone was going as fast as they could. We were directly behind him and some of the positions he got into I have never seen before in my life.”
Even without the crash, there was a chance Alaphilippe would have caught Yates regardless. The fall was a big disappointment but didn’t result in major injury.
“He has skin off of course,” White added. “He is obviously gutted but the race is not over. It was a big chance but the race is far from finished.
“That is one opportunity today and we will be going for it again. Of course, it was disappointing. We wanted to win the stage.”
For his part, Alaphilippe sympathized with his fellow breakaway rider.
“I was going to wait for him because it’s never great to crash,” said Alaphilippe. “But I looked back and saw he was suffering, and looked a little scared so I continued.”
Just as much a gambler as Yates, the Frenchman wasn’t about to give away the ace he’d unexpectedly been dealt.
Fred Dreier contributed to this report from Bagnères-de-Luchon.