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COL DU TOURMALET, France (VN) — The denial is over. Stage after stage, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) has said that he’ll take it “day by day”, that he’ll enjoy his good form while it lasts, that he won’t win the Tour, that he’ll soon run out of energy.
He’s got a list of excuses as to why he won’t win. But, in the mountainous closing sequence that truly began on Saturday – with a short stage that finished at 2,115 meters high atop of the Col du Tourmalet – it may turn out to be that the winner of stage 14, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) steps up to inherit the yellow jersey Alaphilippe has worn for 10 days already.
According to some pundits, Pinot – now ranked sixth, 3:12 behind Alaphilippe – could be the Frenchman who is most likely to win the title.
Either way, it seems that the 2019 Tour is coughing up the best possible chance of a French victory in many years.
The mountains leave riders exposed. Even GC specialists, leaders who have a formidable backing and an armada of team-mates sacrificing themselves in the quest for the yellow jersey, were left faltering on stage 14.
Movistar took up the baton early, assumed position at the front of the peloton over the Soulor, and smashed out a frenetic pace that made rival teams wonder: What’s going on?
GC Favorites after stage 14
- Julian Alaphilippe, Deceuninck-Quick Step, 56:11:29
- Geraint Thomas, Team Ineos, at 2:02
- Steven Kruijswijk, Jumbo-Visma, at 2:14
- Egan Bernal, Team Ineos, at 3:00
- Emanuel Buchmann, Bora-Hansgrohe, at 3:12
- Thibaut Pinot, Groupama-FDJ, at s.t.
- Rigoberto Uran, EF Education First, at 4:24
- Jakob Fuglsang, Astana, at 5:22
- Alejandro Valverde, Movistar, at 5:27
- Enric Mas, Deceuninck-Quick Step, at 5:38
- Mikel Landa, Movistar, at 6:14
- Richie Porte, Trek-Segafredo, at 6:49
- Warren Barguil, Arkea-Samsic, at 7:17
- Nairo Quintana, Movistar, at 7:19
16. Dan Martin, UAE Team Emirates, at 9:50
18. Adam Yates, Mitchelton-Scott, at 10:37
26. Romain Bardet, AG2R-La Mondiale, at 26:05
“Ultimately,” said Team Ineos’ Head of Athletic Performance, Tim Kerrison, “what they achieved was blowing Nairo Quintana out of contention.”
The Colombian, who has twice finished second in the Tour (2013 and 2015) was one of several to be dropped early on the Tourmalet. Okay, his teammate Mikel Landa is a slight beneficiary, finishing sixth in the stage, but he’s still well down the rankings in 11th.
Quintana’s best days seem well behind, so it’s not that shocking.
What is different in 2019, however, is the absence of what was once a main talking point of recent Tours: ‘The Blue Line’ seems to have vanished. That was the nickname for the team formerly known as Sky.
It may still have a presence but it has certainly lost lustre.
Okay, the blue of Sky has been replaced by the burgundy of Ineos – different name, different color, same management – but not the same domination we’ve become accustomed to.
Highlighting this was not just the rapid disappearance of Gianni Moscon and Michal Kwiatkowski from the yellow jersey group, as the pair slipped out the back well before the Soulor summit. That was a little odd but not extraordinary. There was a bigger surprise to come.
With only Egan Bernal along for support, the Ineos pair blended into the crowd. It’s a contrast to how it has been for years.
Taking the place which ‘The Blue Line’ traditionally assumed, powering ahead at the front of the group of favorites, was arguably the most formidable team in 2019, Jumbo-Visma.
Three riders from the Dutch-registered team did the main damage; George Bennett, Laurens De Plus and ‘Stevie’ Kruijswijk.
The New Zealander was asked by his Dutch leader to “please slow down”. The pace was too fast but the Kiwi couldn’t hear his instruction properly so just pushed on ahead. Kruijswijk hung on, “but only just,” the Dutchman later laughed as he cooled down at the team bus beside Bennett.
The speed was rapid, especially given the incline. It was difficult for Kruijswijk but worse for Thomas, who would finish 36 seconds behind Pinot in the stage, and 30 seconds behind the runner-up, Alaphilippe.
Not all hope is lost for Ineos and the atmosphere at the team bus was surprisingly upbeat all things considered.
The aesthetic of the GC race has changed considerably.
Alaphilippe continues to lead, but his advantage over second-place Thomas has grown from 1:26 to 2:02. Kruijswijk remains in third, surrendering only two seconds more time to the race leader (with the deficit now 2:14). And Egan Bernal takes over fourth place in the rankings, pinching that position – and the white jersey – from Enric Mas (Deceuninck-Quick-Step).
What all this adds up to is that Alaphilippe’s claim that he would “try to hang on as long as possible” before “switching to work for Mas” is largely void. He remains a dominant force.
Everyone now knows that the shadow boxing is over. Alaphilippe is the rider with the best form. He continues to lead the overall standings. His star isn’t fading.
Meanwhile, traditional scripts are being torn up. There’s little evidence of burgundy being better than the blue of recent years. And maybe, just maybe, Alaphilippe can pull off a giant coup.
We leave the last words, however, to a Frenchman who knows the sport and the athletes and the Tour very well. Alexander Roos, the cycling editor from L’Equipe believes that, although Alaphilippe is good – amazing even – it may be that Pinot is the Frenchman most likely to prosper on a route that features many more mountains.
“I think Thibaut Pinot is probably the best climber in this Tour,” says Roos. “And there are many mountain stages to go so the terrain is very much in favor of him.”
Furthermore, concludes Roos: “Alaphilippe’s coach said that the day he is going to collapse, he’s going to collapse spectacularly, in minutes not in seconds.
“So I think everything is still possible and the field is quite open.”