Tour de France
Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Analysis: A dramatic battle on Foix Prat d’Albis

The yellow jersey remains the same after stage 15, but Julian Alaphilippe surrendered time to key rivals in the scintillating finale. Now there are three men with a deficit of less than two minutes to the Frenchman.

PRAT D’ALBIS, France (VN) — Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) emerged from the mist at Foix Prat d’Albis, a climb featured on the Tour de France itinerary for the first time this year. His big efforts came in the opening hour, when he battled to be part of the breakaway. Then, in the final hour, he surged again and raced into the lead – and onward to victory.

He had such an advantage that he lifted his hands off the bars well before the line and soft-pedalled to the finish. “You don’t see that often do you?” said Mitchelton-Scott’s general manager, Shayne Bannan. “Without him being a challenger on GC, he didn’t have to push for seconds.

“To see him savor the moment was really nice.”

Yates came to the Tour as a support rider for his twin brother Adam. Now Simon is the second man in 2019 to win two stages. He’s won the Vuelta a España and led the Giro d’Italia but the original aim was for Adam to chase for the overall victory.

That ambition came crumbling down on the road to the Tourmalet yesterday.

Adam had been as high as seventh overall, but he’s now 24th and that team’s focus has shifted. ‘Stage wins please’, came the order.

With Simon’s pair of victories in the Pyrenees added to Daryl Impey’s triumph in Brioude, the Australian-registered team is third-in-line for the most stage wins.

Simon Yates took his second victory of the race on Sunday. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Although Deceuninck-Quickstep also has three stage wins – two for Julian Alaphilippe and one for Elia Viviani – the time the Frenchman has spent in the yellow jersey (11 days, and counting), eclipses Mitchelton-Scott’s efforts.

GC Favorites After Stage 15:

  1. Julian Alaphilippe, Deceuininck-Quick Step, 61:00:22
  2. Geraint Thomas, Team Ineos, at 1:35
  3. Steven Kruijswijk, Jumbo-Visma, at 1:47
  4. Thibaut Pinot, Groupama-FDF, at 1:50
  5. Egan Bernal, Team Ineos, at 2:02
  6. Emanuel Buchmann, Bora-Hansgrohe, at 2:14
  7. Mikel Landa, Movistar, at 4:54
  8. Alejandro Valverde, Movistar, at 5:00
  9. Jakob Fuglsang, Astana, at 5:27
  10. Rigoberto Uran, EF Education First, at 5:33
  11. Richie Porte, Trek-Segafredo, at 6:30
  12. Warren Barguil, Arkea-Samsic, at 7:22
  13. Nairo Quintana, Movistar, at 8:28

15. Dan Martin, UAE-Team Emirates, at 11:39

19. Romain Bardet, AG2R-La Mondiale, at 27:12

24. Adam Yates, Mitchelton-Scott, at 33:18

26. Enric Mas, Deceuninck-Quick Step, at 35:18

With four stage wins and a rider ranked third on GC on the eve of the second rest day, Jumbo-Visma seems to have taken over the mantle of the dominant squad in the Tour. Riders from the Dutch team have sprinted to victory – three times, one each for Mike Teunissen, Dylan Groenewegen and Wout van Aert – as well as won the TTT and worn the maillot jaune for two days.

Once again, Steven Kruijswijk was impressive on the climbs, well supported by young compatriot Laurens De Plus and ‘Kiwi George’.

“We brought Laurens [De Plus] to the team and he’s an incredible talent and a really strong rider uphill,” said Jumbo-Visma’s general manager, Richard Plugge, after stage 15.

“And George [Bennett] has indeed developed himself as a great GC rider these last years, for grand tours.

“If you can have riders like that as domestiques in these kind of stages, it’s really good for Steven.”

This comment came in response to the question: what makes the difference this year? “Also,” continued Plugge, “with Tony [Martin] of course – and the other guys – we have a strong squad for the flat parts of the stage. So, that’s the difference.”

Jumbo-Visma are becoming the dominant team in this year’s Tour. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

2:02 separates the top five after 15 stages

Alaphilippe continues his “surprise” Tour. He still leads the GC, but on the final climb to Prat D’Albis on Sunday he displayed a little bit of fallibility – at last. You even need to scroll down to 11th place before finding his name in the results.

Ordinarily, this wouldn’t be such a shock. But have you seen how he’s racing this Tour?

He attacks here, he wins there. He exceeds his own expectations and those of his team. He lures in French fans and gives them reason to cheer. And, as we’ve been saying for two weeks now, he entertains. But today, with 5km to go in what became an epic race, he dropped out of ‘The GC Group’.

By then, the focus of the coverage had shifted from Yates and his stage victory, and honed in on the troops who are still slugging it out for the yellow jersey.

For the first time in the race, Alaphilippe struggled to respond to attacks from his rivals. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Pinot vs Thomas vs Kruijswijk

Leading the charge to challenge ‘Ala’ again today, was his compatriot Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).

Look at him go! It’s an impressive sight. The Groupama-FDJ rider who finished third in the 2014 Tour is the man many believe is most likely to win the Tour this year.

Pinot won on the Tourmalet on Saturday and finished second to Yates in stage 15, missing out on victory today by just 33 seconds.

Considering he and his group of GC specialists began the final 11.8km climb 2:40 behind Yates, it’s a strong reminder of how serious Pinot and his team are about their bid for overall glory in 2019. He’s not only prepared to attack, he’s able to put time into the likes of Geraint Thomas, an emboldened Mikel Landa (Movistar), and German GC sensation Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).

Pinot started the day ranked sixth overall, at 3:12. By the finish he was in fourth place on GC, 1:50 down on Alaphilippe.

In between the two Frenchmen lies the defending Tour champion, Thomas (at 1:35) and Kruijswijk (at 1:47).

Thomas and Kruijswijk reached the finish together, surrendering 1:22 to Yates and 49 seconds to Pinot. But, crucially, they reeled in a little of their deficit to the irrepressible Alaphilippe.

But hey, the French race leader is not yet done with yet! He was only 22 seconds slower than the Welshman and Dutchman and he didn’t have nearly the team support enjoyed by Kruijswijk and, to a lesser extent, Thomas.

Praise should also be lavished on Pinot’s right-hand man on the climbs, the super-domestique, David Gaudu. He sets things up and Pinot goes on with the job. That’s how it was on the Tourmalet, and again in the race to Prat d’Albis.

Gaudu has proven to be a key wingman to Pinot in the mountains. Photo: Bernard Papon-Pool/Getty Images

Ineos may not be Sky, but they’re not to be forgotten

And while it’s easy to note the difference of Ineos versus Sky you can’t ignore the reality that the British team is still a force to be reckoned with.

Thomas may not have won successive mountain stages as he did when he won the title in 2018, and he may have finished second in the TT that many expected him to win. And he still needs to make up the 1:35 to Alaphilippe if he is going to win a second title. But, he is ranked second on GC after 2,504.3km of racing – and there’s another tough week yet to come.

Furthermore, it would be remiss to conclude this GC review without referencing Ineos’ second leader, the best young rider ranked fifth overall. Egan Bernal is just 2:02 behind Alaphilippe – and the man in the white jersey was better than ‘The Other Leader’, beating Thomas in stage 15 by 31 seconds.

Ineos go into the final rest day with riders in second and fifth on GC. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

A stage to replay

It was a stunning, complex stage with many stories and a list of bullet-point notes that highlight the many machinations of a fantastic race.

We can’t reference each exciting move and every change of lead but if you’d ever like to find a stage of the Tour to watch a replay of – and show your non-cycling friends what this bike racing caper is all about – you could do a lot worse than push ‘play’ for the footage of stage 15.

Now, a day of rest. Catch your breath. And we’ll see what comes next in a compelling edition of the Tour when racing resumes in Nîmes on Tuesday.