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Analysis: A shortened showdown on the Col de l’Iseran

Egan Bernal and Julian Alaphilippe had their showdown on the Col de l'Iseran on Friday. Unfortunately, hail and landslides shortened the battle.

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“The day’s race has been called due to adverse weather conditions,” reads one dispatch from the organizers of the Tour de France. “Rider times have been taken at Col de l’Iseran.”

It was shaping up to be an amazing race with the rider ranked second overall at the start of the stage, Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) going on the attack on the approach near the top of the 2,770 meter high pass – the highest point of the 106th edition.

He crested the Iseran climb in first place and held an advantage of around one minute over a group that contained his teammate and last year’s champion, Geraint Thomas, as well as a small collective of other GC specialists.

By that time, the halcyon Tour that French riders were enjoying was in tatters.

GC Favorites after stage 19

  1. Egan Bernal, Team Ineos, 78:00:42
  2. Julian Alaphilippe, Deceuninck-Quick Step, at 0:48
  3. Geraint Thomas, Team Ineos, at 1:16
  4. Steven Kruijswijk, Jumbo-Visma, at 1:28
  5. Emanuel Buchmann, Bora-Hansgrohe, at 1:55
  6. Mikel Landa, Movistar, at 4:35
  7. Rigoberto Uran, EF Education First, at 5:14
  8. Nairo Quintana, Movistar, at 5:17
  9. Alejandro Valverde, Movistar, at 6:25
  10. Richie Porte, Trek-Segafredo, at 6:28
  11. Warren Barguil, Arkea-Samsic, at 7:03

16. Romain Bardet, AG2R-La Mondiale, at 26:26

19. Dan Martin, UAE-Team Emirates, at 42:37

35. Adam Yates, Mitchelton-Scott, at 1:14:37

Early in the stage, the darling of cycling in France, Thibaut Pinot had already abandoned, citing muscle pain in his left quadriceps. That was already a big blow for the host nation, with Pinot ranked fifth overall after 18 stages – and, until his injury became public, he was one of the favorites for the title.

But things went from curious to utterly bizarre as riders began speeding down the treacherously steep and technical descent of the Iseran, expecting to be racing for another 37.5km to the site of the finish in Tignes, at an altitude of 2,113 meters.

Hail and ice coated the road on the descent of the Col de l’Iseran, forcing organizers to shorten the stage. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Race cancelled: Bernal takes over lead

It was already a rarity in modern cycling to see someone vying for the yellow jersey make a move so early in a mountain stage.

In recent years, the GC specialists have usually waited until the final climb of a mountain stage before lashing out with an attack. But Bernal had to go early; he had a deficit of 1:30 to the Frenchman who has led for 14 of the 21 stages on the itinerary in the 2019 Tour, Julian Alaphilippe. At the time of his attack, the race had nearly 40 kilometers remaining until the finish.

It’s been a while since the Tour de France saw a race-winning move from 40 kilometers out. The move was a sign that Bernal had extreme confidence in his legs over the mountainous course.

Although Alaphilippe battled gallantly to limit his losses, he arrived at the top of the Col de l’Iseran with a deficit of approximately 2:02 to the attacking Bernal (although, at the time of writing, there has been no official communication of the results of a most peculiar stage). At the top of the Iseran, the Colombian 22-year-old had already been dubbed ‘Virtual Leader’ of the Tour de France.

The concept of a ‘Virtual Leader’ relates to the situation on the road: if a rider has made up his deficit in the cumulative collection of time for all stages in the Tour, but it has never hinted that this would be the actual result, not until stage 19 of the 2019 race.

Hardcore fans will forever wonder what could have occurred, had the stage not been shortened. Could Alaphilippe have closed the gap to Bernal on the descent and the final climb to Tignes? While the Frenchman is a bonafide daredevil on the descents, his 2:02 deficit was far too vast to close on the descent. Perhaps a miracle burst of energy could have helped him claw his way back on the climb to Tignes. Or, in a more likely scenario, the gap could have widened on the final uphill push to the line.

We will never know, of course. All we do know is that Bernal was the stronger man—by a wide margin—at the top of the Col de l’Izeran.

Bernal’s attack left the GC group in tatters. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Ice on the road causes confusion

What turned a dramatic stage into an unprecedented one is the effect of a massive hail storm in the French Alps. Although it was dry where the riders were competing, high in the mountains of the Savoie department, conditions were extreme further down the mountain.

A day after high temperatures brutalized the peloton of the Tour – with riders competing in almost 40 degrees Celsius – hail would bring the race to a halt.

The decision was made to stop the race well before the riders arrived at a scene of white: hail stones piled up, blanketing the road. Meanwhile, the weight of the downpour caused mudslides which effectively closed the roads.

The commissaires from the UCI (Union Cycliste Internationale, cycling’s governing body) announced that the race would stop, and the effective finish line would be the site of the ‘Souvenir Henri Desgrange’, the title given to the highest point of the Tour de France.

In 2019, it just happened to be the Col de l’Iseran – the exact place where the Colombian ‘altitude native’, Bernal, was on his own in the lead of the stage.

Even in defeat, Alaphilippe was a showman for his adoring French fans. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Awaiting official results

There was confusion in the peloton as official vehicles attempted to alert the riders that the race had been cancelled, that the line atop the Col d’Iseran was now effectively the finish.

The message got through to Geraint Thomas and others in his group earlier than others.

After cresting the Iseran, Bernal – who earned a time bonus of eight seconds (as part of a ‘Bonus Point’ initiative introduced by Tour organisers last year and continued in 2019) – set off for what he expected to be the next major challenge.

The 22-year-old Colombian was holding his advantage over Alaphilippe, and attempting to increase his gains but he was joined by Mitchelton-Scott’s Simon Yates on the descent.

The pair sped onward towards where the ice covered the road when motorcycles carrying officials rode alongside the cyclists and tried to explain the circumstances of what lay ahead.

Initially Bernal didn’t seem to understand, so he kept pedaling, kept racing, kept trying to increase his advantage. Yates then responded by racing after him but the official on the motorcycle continued to try explaining the bizarre circumstances.

Eventually Bernal and Yates ceased their efforts and tried to come to terms with what was happening.

It was a chaotic scene outside Tignes as the riders and team cars came to a halt. Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Confusion from unprecedented scenes

Today Bernal has become only the third Colombian in history to wear the yellow jersey. He moves up from second overall to first place with only two stages to come, the tough mountain stage to Val Thorens on Saturday and the procession to Paris on Sunday. He is now unquestionably the best climber in this year’s race, and he looks primed to win the overall, barring some physical meltdown.

Official results have not been issued and there is even doubt about whether or not there will be a podium protocol on this historic day.

When more news comes to hand, we’ll be sure to share the information on a day when the weather had a major influence on the result of the Tour de France.