Tour de France
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French connection: Alaphilippe, Pinot, and a nation’s fight for yellow

French hero Alaphilippe is becoming a bigger problem by the day for the top favorites as the Tour enters its final battleground. And Pinot packs the punch that should worry all the other would-be winners.

As the Tour de France lurches toward the final showdown in the Alps, everything remains in play. In what’s been hailed as the most exciting Tour in decades, five riders pedal into the final three stages within one minute of each other.

All five have a chance to win the overall, and the growing tension is thicker than the stifling air in the south of France over the past several stages.

There’s only one problem: Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) has a head-start of 1:35 to everyone else.

If those five trailing riders want a chance to win in Paris, they all know they need to collectively get rid of the stubborn and surprising Alaphilippe.

Ineos boss Dave Brailsford said the dynamic presents a “conundrum” for the top favorites, who will simultaneously be racing against one other, while also trying to distance the punchy Frenchman.

“How you do one is different to how you do the other,” Brailsford said Monday at the rest day press conference. “You’ve got this mix of contrasting goals, which is making the whole race very different.”

The big question going into the Tour’s final weekend will be if Alaphilippe can hang on to win. Unproven in the high mountains, he’s been flying since the first week. Yet he displayed a few cracks in his armor on the upper slopes of Sunday’s finale, ceding time to rivals but defending yellow.

If he wins, Alaphilippe knows he will need to do it alone.

Deceuninck-Quick-Step brought a mixed team of stage-hunters and sprinters, and never expected to be carrying the yellow jersey into the final throes of the race. Alaphilippe was dangerously isolated Sunday after Spanish climber Enric Mas, once the leader of the best young rider competition, fell off the pace. Alaphilippe revealed hints of tactical uncertainty when he tried to follow the explosive attack of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ); he didn’t need to, and then lost the wheel of his direct rivals.

Is Julian Alaphilippe on the cusp of cracking, or can he pull off a monumental victory on home soil? Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Alaphilippe, who has never been in contention in a grand tour, let alone in the third week, let the emotion of racing in the yellow jersey get the better of him.

“My yellow jersey is hanging by a thread,” Alaphilippe said. “The final stages in the Alps are terrible. One bad moment on one of the longer climbs and it can all be over. I will fight with everything I have, but I am also realistic. It’s a nice advantage, but it’s also not very much at all.”

Alaphilippe only needs to follow the wheels and he will be the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985. Essentially, he can lose 30 seconds per stage and still win.

However, there are five teams stacked behind him that believe they have an equally good chance to take the yellow jersey, if only they can crack the Frenchman.

“Our job is to make the race as hard as possible,” said Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), third at 1:47 back. “The harder it is, the better it is for me. We are not racing against just one rider, but to win the Tour. I believe I can do it if I have the legs.”

Before the big mountain stages, Wednesday’s hilly stage 17 across the foothills of the Alps could expose any chinks in the armor of a GC contender. Then things will quickly come to a head for Alaphilippe.

The first of three consecutive climbing stages is a classic Tour mountain haul: 208 kilometers, three rated climbs, including the fearsome Col d’Izoard and Col du Galibier in the final half of the race, then a long descent to the line. The key for Alaphilippe’s rivals will be to try to gap the yellow jersey well before the Galibier summit. Alaphilippe is one of the best descenders in the peloton and should be able to limit his losses on the fast and technical downhill finale, if need be.

If Alaphilippe defends his lead on Thursday, his chances for overall victory will see a huge boost.

The final two stages are shorter — 126.5km to Tignes on Friday and 130km ending high in the French Alps on Saturday — and should favor Alaphilippe more than the first Alpine stage. In stages 19 and 20, his teammates will be able to support him for longer, and if he has successfully held yellow again, the chance of a lifetime to win will only motivate him to dig deeper.

Furthermore, if Alaphilippe doesn’t crack Thursday, Friday’s shorter stage ends with a short but explosive climb to Tignes which could actually favor Alaphilippe, assuming he has anything left.

Pinot power

Thibaut Pinot showed great form and took the victory on stage 14. Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Compatriot, rival, and friend, Thibaut Pinot can feel the euphoria building around himself and his countryman in yellow.

Pinot emerged from the Pyrenees as the strongest climber in the Tour. Backed by solid support in the mountains, Pinot recovered lost time from a mid-race split caused by winds, and carries momentum and confidence into the Alps.

So far, Pinot has been able to drop everyone in the peloton. The question is if he can attack Alaphilippe and leave the others in his wake.

“It’s Alaphilippe that has the pressure,” Pinot said. “I know all three stages. The hardest is Thursday. If I have the legs, I will attack.”

French fans are going delirious as Alaphilippe and Pinot battle for yellow. A French rider hasn’t had such a legitimate shot at overall victory in years. That wave of home support could be a critical factor in pushing both riders harder and higher than ever before.

“Racing like this in front of home crowds is only pushing me harder. And it’s the same for Alaphilippe,” Pinot said. “We are both counting on the support of the public to push us as high as possible.”

Forecasted heat could count against riders like Pinot and Kruijswijk, who seem to relish racing in cooler temperatures. Alaphilippe and Egan Bernal, in contrast, thrive when the thermometer tilts up.

There’s no shortage of firepower chasing Alaphilippe. Groupama-FDJ, Jumbo-Visma, and Ineos all bring depth in numbers. Only Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), riding under the radar in sixth place at 2:15 back, is equally as exposed as Alaphilippe in the mountains. If he keeps following wheels he could sneak onto the podium in Paris.

Ultimatly, the pressure will be on Kruijswijk, Pinot, and the Ineos pair of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, to make the race.

Ineos came to the race with two hot favorites in Thomas and Bernal. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

So far, Ineos has been a different type of team without the presence of four-time champion Chris Froome. The British super-squad hasn’t controlled the race in typical suffocating fashion. Thomas, who brushed aside yet another crash in Tuesday’s sprint stage, also said he overcame a few rough days in the Pyrenees to keep his GC hopes alive; he sits second at 1:35 back. Bernal seems poised to move in the Alps after steadily following wheels, but the team has been downplaying his chances, insisting that the team is riding for Thomas.

“We are strong at Ineos, but there are other teams that have to take responsibility as well,” Bernal said. “We’re approaching the Alps. The climbs there are longer and steeper. They’re more of the Colombian style of climbing. I’m ready and I feel good. However, we’re in the third week and anything can happen.”

Indeed, the entire Tour peloton seems to be hanging by a thread. Riders can crack in an instant so deep into the third week. And in a Tour wound so tightly, the winner could well be the rider who simply has the legs of their lives in Saturday’s final mountain stage.

Of course, all that supposes that Alaphilippe is safely out of the frame.

One thing is certain: in the closest and most exciting Tour in years, the outcome likely won’t be decided until the final pedal strokes on Saturday at Val Thorens.