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SAINT-ETIENNE (VN) – Let’s begin the review of the general classification after stage 8 with a round of applause for Christian Prudhomme, Thierry Gouvenou and the team that designs the routes of modern Tours de France.
Prudhomme and co always seek to achieve excitement and anticipation but unless the riders respond, the opening stanza of the race can fall a little flat. In 2019, there has been action aplenty and what may have been dubbed a “transitional stage” provided fantastic racing action, angst for the defending champion (and, with it, interesting vision for viewers), and even something for the French to cheer about.
There was a significant scare for defending champion Geraint Thomas, one of three Team Ineos riders caught in a crash with 16km to go in the stage.
As he so often does, the Welshman bounced back up, got back on his bike and – after an impressive chase, initially with the support of two team-mates – he was back in the peloton 10km before the finish.
Later, as he raced to the line in Saint-Etienne 26 seconds after the stage win was decided, Thomas even burst to the front, almost leading out the sprint for fourth place.
It was a display that suggested, ‘Even when I crash and have to chase, I’m still here. I’m still strong. Don’t mess with me! I’m still chasing a second victory!’
He survived in style and remains ranked fifth, but Thomas is now 1:12 behind the yellow jersey, rather than the 49-second deficit he had at the start of the stage.
Thomas lost some time to the French GC favorite, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), runner-up in St-Etienne, but he is still well in contention for the title. The same cannot be said for Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida). In the frenetic finale, the Sicilian seemed to surrender his bid for GC glory.
Dropped early on the Côte de la Jaillère, Nibali watched the other favorites ride away, clearly unable to match the pace.
The 2014 Tour champion eventually cruised to the finish, chatting with compatriot Alberto Bettiol (EF Education First), losing 4:25 to stage winner, Thomas de Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), and just under four minutes to Thomas and other GC riders including Egan Bernal (Ineos), Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Steven Kruiswijk (Jumbo-Visma), and 33 others who reached the finish 26 seconds down on De Gendt.
Emotions were high at the finish and the leader of the points classification summed it up in brutal honesty on French television. “It was okay,” said Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), “but it was a f—ing hard stage.”
On paper, this was a stage that suggested Sagan could triumph: undulating is an understatement – it was brutal.
The Slovakian would earn more points, finishing fifth – sandwiched between his usual rivals on a day that suits his strength, Michael Matthews in fourth and Matteo Trentin in sixth.
Ahead of Sagan, however, were two irrepressible attackers: De Gendt, a formidable baroudeur who was rewarded for being in the break from early in the day, earning his second Tour stage victory by crossing the line on his own after holding off a stunning, rapid pursuit by Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) and the French GC darling Pinot.
The Belgian stage winner crossed the line six seconds ahead of Pinot and Alaphilippe, who will wear the yellow jersey on Bastille Day.
“I had to try and attack on the last climb and just go full gas,” said Alaphilippe, the winner of stage two, and race leader from stage two through to stage six.
“Today I rode my bike like I really love to ride my bike.” In other words: he rode with panache. That’s what he does often, and again he reaped a big reward. Back in yellow and content with what he’s already achieved.
“I think it’s difficult to do something better,” he admitted.
Benefits of the Bonus Point
Alaphilippe has responded brilliantly to the parcours designed by Prudhomme and Gouvenou. He has also benefitted from another initiative of recent Tours, the ‘Bonus Point’, designed to lure GC riders into action in the finale of eight stages, including stage two (which he won) and stage eight (in which he finished third).
With eight-, five- and two-second bonuses awarded near the finish of selected stages, the hope was that it would inspire some attacking antics.
Step right up Julian! He took the cue and has amassed a total of 24 bonus seconds through both carefully timed attacks for the bonus points available and his podium placings.
Without the bonus points system, the Frenchman’s advantage on second place Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), who has gained six bonus seconds, would be just seven seconds in total. As it is, Alaphilippe leads Ciccone by 23 seconds.
The race from Mâcon to Saint-Etienne wasn’t a flat one, it wasn’t a mountain stage: it was just damn difficult – all the way from start to finish! 200 kilometers with barely a moment of reprieve. Up, down, up, up… down a little, then up again. Never was there a moment to catch a breath. And what did the riders do with what was presented? They raced with heart and soul. They put on a show.
There will be fireworks across France tonight as celebrations for the national fête begin and the first rest day has been delayed, largely because it’ll be a public holiday on Monday (as Bastille Day falls on a Sunday). But Alaphilippe knows he’s not going to win the Tour, not this year, not on this course… not after his efforts in the opening week.
There’s a tax to pay for the regularity of his attacking and he’s well aware of it.
How long can you keep this jersey? It’s an obvious question and he doesn’t try and dress up his chances. “I don’t want to think about it,” he said.
“Tomorrow I will enjoy being back in yellow and we will see how long my lead will last.”
Despite his popularity in France, the consensus is that Alaphilippe will inevitably lose the lead of GC… again. The time trial in Pau for stage 13 is the most probable location for the next switch of leadership.
“He’s got a lot of talent and, for sure, we’re going to celebrate Julian’s yellow jersey in tomorrow’s newspaper,” said L’Equipe cycling editor, Alexander Roos. “But we’ll also be featuring the coup of Pinot today who earned some time on the other favorites.”
Pinot was ranked seventh at the start of the stage. He too benefitted from bonuses, but also the predictability of Alaphilippe’s aggressive style of racing.
“Thibaut knew I was going to attack,” said Alaphilippe, “and he was right on my wheel when I went.”
The pair collaborated in their pursuit of De Gendt and fell just shy of reeling in the Belgian. Still, good gains were made in the closing 10km, once the bonus point was contested and the final climb crested.
Swapping turns evenly, they knew each could gain from a partnership. “It was a mutual arrangement,” explained Alaphilippe. “I earned time to regain the yellow jersey and he took time on the other favorites.”
The two Frenchman, suggested Jakob Fuglsang at the finish, benefitted from the motorbikes carrying TV cameramen. It’s an allegation Alaphilippe denied in the post-race press conference. “I don’t know what I can say,” he said. “I know that I was not behind a moto.”
There’s a Frenchman in yellow for a day of national celebrations. There’s another ranked third on GC. Stage 8 provided some great racing, an accident to raise the heart-rate of the defending champion, an abdication of sorts from the 2014 champion… and another display that reiterates how much better the racing can be to watch if the route is designed to elicit action.
GC Favorites after stage 8
- Julian Alaphilippe, Deceuninck-Quick Step
- Giulio Ciccone, Trek-Segafredo, +0:23
- Thibaut Pinot, Groupama-FDJ, + 0:53
- George Bennett, Jumbo-Visma, + 1:10
- Geraint Thomas, Ineos, +1:12
- Egan Bernal, Ineos, +1:16
- Steven Kruijswijk, Jumbo-Visma, +1:27
- Rigoberto Uran, EF Education First, +1:38
- Jakob Fuglsang, Astana, +1.42
- Emanuel Buchmann, Bora-Hansgrohe, +1:45
- Enric Mas, Deceuninck-Quick Step: +1:46
- Adam Yates, Mitchelton-Scott, + 1:47
- Nairo Quintana, Movistar, +2:04
- Mikel Landa, Movistar, +2:06
- Dan Martin, UAE- Team Emirates, +2:09
- Richie Porte, Trek-Segafredo, +2:19
- Bauke Mollema, Trek-Segafredo, +2:45
- Alejandro Valverde, Movistar, +3:18
- Romain Bardet, Ag2r-La Mondiale, +3:20
- Vincenzo Nibali, Bahrain-Merida, 6:18