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Analysis: Bernal may be Ineos’s best bet to challenge Alaphilippe

The other GC favorites flinched when Egan Bernal attacked on the Col du Galibier. Now, the Colombian has emerged as the biggest threat to take down Julian Alaphilippe.

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Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) continues to lead the 2019 Tour de France after the first of three tough days in the Alps. In stage 18, he lost ground to his general classification rivals on the brutal Col du Galibier, but he used the long descent to the finish to his advantage.

Once again, we wonder: Will he eventually crack? Probably. Will he surrender over 1:35? That’s a tougher question to answer, and only time will tell. He’s not waving the white flag yet.

There is a reshuffle in the top order of GC after the 208km stage from Embrun to Valloire, and the main benefactor is Egan Bernal (Ineos). The best young rider in the race, a 22-year-old sensation who has shared leadership with the defending champion, Geraint Thomas, since the start of his second Tour, is now ranked second overall.

The Colombian attacked in the closing kilometers of the Galibier climb, and crested the top around 30 seconds ahead of Alaphilippe, who showed signs that he could soon be taxed after leading the race for 14 days.

Should the expected collapse (finally) come, Ineos holds the aces.

The British team began the Tour with Bernal and Thomas as co-leaders; they are now ranked second and third, 1:30 and 1:35 behind Alaphilippe, respectively.

GC Favorites after stage 18

  1. Julian Alaphilippe, Deceuininck-Quick Step, 75:18:49
  2. Egan Bernal, Team Ineos, at 1:30
  3. Geraint Thomas, Team Ineos, at 1:35
  4. Steven Kruijswijk, Jumbo-Visma, at 1:47
  5. Thibaut Pinot, Groupama-FDJ, at 1:50
  6. Emanuel Buchmann, Bora-Hansgrohe, at 2:14
  7. Nairo Quintana, Movistar, at 3:54
  8. Mikel Landa, Movistar, at 4:54
  9. Rigoberto Uran, EF Education First, at 5:33
  10. Alejandro Valverde, Movistar, at 5:58
  11. Richie Porte, Trek-Segafredo, at 6:30
  12. Warren Barguil, Arkea-Samsic, at 7:47

18. Romain Bardet, AG2R-La Mondiale, at 23:39

19. Dan Martin, UAE-Team Emirates, at 34:23

27. Adam Yates, Mitchelton-Scott, at 49:35

Geraint Thomas tried to get away from the favorites but could not on the slopes of the Galibier. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

“It didn’t seem quite hard enough so the call was made for Egan to jump,” said Thomas only moments after finishing 13th in the stage. As the Welshman explained, it was something of a two-pronged attack. The thinking behind Bernal’s surge was that it would, “hopefully kick [things] off.”

“But, it didn’t really,” Thomas conceded.

The only rider to (briefly) match the pace of Bernal was the world champion Alejandro Valverde, but the Spanish veteran couldn’t hold on too long. And none of the other GC rivals could do anything to reel him in.

It seemed Ineos had made a statement: ‘We’re now racing for Egan!’ You could jump to that conclusion, but only momentarily.

After Bernal’s attack Thomas settled into the position of decoy, following the wheels of Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) for around a kilometer. By then Bernal was 30 seconds ahead and neither the Frenchman from Groupama-FDJ, nor the Dutchman from Jumbo-Visma could make a dent on the Colombian’s gain.

In fact, the first to show any sign of closing the gap to Bernal was — curiously — his teammate, Thomas.

“On a nice road, they were kind of just riding tempo again,” said Thomas, before explaining his pursuit of Bernal. “That’s when I had a little dig to just see what would happen. They obviously followed me over the top, but I think it was a good day for Egan gaining some time.”

The Tour remains an open race. There was plenty to see in stage 18. Impressive climbing, interesting team tactics, fast descending. The winner was Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar) who jumps from 12th overall to seventh thanks to his gain of over four minutes.

The runner-up in the stage, Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), gets some spots and maybe a KOM crown for his efforts in the break. But it’s the rider who finished eighth in Valloire, Egan Bernal, who relished his chance to attack and continues to confirm his pedigree.

He’s a superstar at just 22 and now he’s ahead of the defending champion with some tough climbs to come. Who would you back? Alaphilippe, Bernal, or Thomas?

By this time tomorrow, we should know which is most likely to become the Tour champion in 2019.

Alaphilippe ceded some time to Bernal, however he still holds a 1:30 advantage. Photo: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Alaphilippe’s ongoing insistence

“I knew that it would be a really hard day,” said the race leader, who walked through the media mixed zone underneath umbrellas, as rain began to pour down moments after a long, hot stage.

“Everybody wants to attack and push me to my limit — and they did,” said Alaphilippe, who finished 14th in a stage won by two-time Tour de France runner-up, Nairo Quintana.

A handful of riders from the early break that included Quintana finished between the Colombian stage winner and the young Colombian, Bernal, who continues to wear the white jersey.

Bardet was second in the stage and he gets a polka-dot jersey for his efforts; he’s the new King of the Mountains. But the runner-up from 2016 has not turned out to be the GC candidate that he began the race as. (After 18 stages, he’s 18th overall, 23:39 behind Alaphilippe.)

Next across the line were several early attackers. Then came the Colombian challenger, Bernal, who was eighth in stage 18. He was 4:26 behind Quintana but, more importantly, 32 seconds ahead of his other key GC rivals who all raced across the line in a cluster: Kruijswijk, Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), Pinot, then teammate Thomas, race leader Alaphilippe, and another Colombian Rigoberto Uran. Quintana’s teammate Mikel Landa, and the Australian hope Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) rounded out the group.

Alaphilippe repeated his well-practiced line: “I’m really happy to save my yellow jersey for one more day.”

Team Ineos was aggressive on Thursday’s stage, but Julian Alaphilippe held strong. Photo: Tim de Waele/Getty Images

Ineos throws down the gauntlet

If all goes to pre-Tour expectations, and Alaphilippe does eventually fade out of yellow — something that has been expected for days, even though he continues to prove the naysayers wrong — then the big winners will be Team Ineos pair.

Bernal is poised to switch his white jersey for a yellow one, but only if Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s French superstar crumbles. And although the Frenchman showed his fighting spirit in stage 18, he had the benefit of a long downhill — from the Galibier to Valloire — and he put his fantastic bike handling to good use.

He not only caught up with Thomas and company, he overtook them and seemed as though he would possibly even increase his advantage in the fight for the yellow jersey.

Thomas is, however, far from finished. He has the advantage of having a teammate like Bernal issuing challenges. If he gains time, great. If he fails, it seems clear that G is still capable of climbing into the race lead.

Disc brakes vs. rim brakes

It is also worth noting that, of the top 10 on GC, there is a mix of old-school braking and disc brakes.

Rim or disc? What would you prefer if you had a long, steep, technical 18km descent like the one from the Col du Galibier to Valloire?

Watch the footage. Consider the ease in which Alaphilippe seems to manage the downhill, surging rapidly — as he always does — when there’s a long straight. But, crucially, waiting longer before slowing for the corner.

Marginal gains? We’ve heard of that before and understand that this approach helps win the Tour de France. But what about marginal losses?

For the record, of the top 10 on GC, disc brakes are used by: Alaphilippe, Buchmann, and Uran. The other seven opt for weight savings and old-school rim brakes.

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.