We’re halfway through the 2019 Tour de France, with home hero Julian Alaphilippe exciting French fans as he wears the leader’s yellow jersey.
The Deceuninck-Quick-Step rider leads the way after 10 of the Tour’s 21 stages. But can he stay there, with a taxing trip into the mountains ahead of the peloton?
As the race gets set to resume on Wednesday following the first rest day, we look ahead to the rest of Le Tour and discuss some talking points.
A FIRST FRENCH WINNER IN THREE DECADES?
It is to cycling what the Maracana is to football, Vince Lombardi to American football and the Ashes to cricket.
It remains the most exciting, gruelling and amazing event the sport has to offer. And yet the Tour de France has lost some of its own identity.
Le Tour has been won by 23 home riders in all, between them taking 36 wins. Both are records. And yet, it is 36 years since they produced a champion.
Since the brilliant Bernard Hinault lifted the last of his five titles in 1985, the Giro d’Italia has produced 14 home grown winners. Spain’s Vuelta a Espana has seen 11 different countrymen ride to glory.
At the halfway point of the 2019 Tour, a Frenchman sits in yellow, having already reclaimed the famous jersey from young Trek-Segafredo upstart Giulio Ciccone.
Julian Alaphilippe is his name. And the former soldier – who stormed back into contention after Thomas De Gendt won Stage 8 – fought to grab the yellow jersey on Bastille Day on Sunday.
The 27-year-old, who wore it for three days initially following his Stage 3 triumph from Binche to Epernay, claimed his two maiden stage wins at Le Tour a year ago and is making an impact once again. The Saint-Amand-Montrond man’s gun-slinging solo attacks have been a highlight of the 2019 Tour so far.
A puncheur (a rider who specialises in rolling terrain with short but steep climbs), Alaphilippe is someone for whom overall Tour de France glory would seem beyond. He is ideally suited for one-day classics, and he is in the form of his life at them coming into this year’s race, having claimed Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche and La Fleche Wallonne victory. He was also second at Brabantse Pijl and fourth at the Amstel Gold Race – career best finishes at all five.
The second half of the Tour will be the real test as the race heads into the perilous Pyrenees.
But just as Bastille Day – the French National Day – was a turning point in the French Revolution, perhaps Alaphilippe’s awe-inspiring performances could also be a turning point for French riders at the 2019 Tour de France.
MARTIN MOVING INTO CONTENTION
It seemed the unpredictability and openness of the 2019 race could have put paid to the chances of some of the pre-race favourites.
Vincenzo Nibali, the 2014 champion, for example, is deemed out of contention after he finished 4:25 down on winner De Gendt on Stage 8.
The man known as Lo Squalo (The Shark) has sunk to 30th in the General Classification, 14 minutes adrift of Alaphilippe, which appears too great a gap to bridge.
Adam Yates, Nairo Quintana, Thibaut Pinot – the man seen as France’s greatest hope of ending 34 years of hurt – Jakob Fuglsang, Alejandro Valverde and Romain Bardet are all poised promisingly in the chasing pack.
Another man shooting into contention after gaining time on some riders in the GC is perennial top-10 finisher Dan Martin. The resolute UAE Team Emirates man climbed into the top-10 following Stage 10, the Irishman is just 2:09 behind Alaphilippe, and is well positioned to make his mark as the race moves into the business end.
A winner on Stage 6 last year – a landmark first Tour triumph for UAE Team Emirates – Martin finished the race by picking up the coveted Combativity award. And, after three successive top-10 finishes at the race – ninth, sixth and eighth in 2016, 2017 and 2018 respectively – he’ll be confident of pushing on once the race gets back under way, even if he seems to be talking down his chances.
“We’ve done a lot of kilometres and hours. It looked on paper before the race that this is one of the hardest Tour de France’s we’ve ever seen,” the 32-year-old said following Stage 8.
“The fatigue is already pretty high and the level is so high this year. The speed of the race has increased, the bikes are better, nutrition is better, everyone’s fitter, stronger, so it’s normal the race is faster. Week three I think there’ll be a lot of tired guys.”
THE MOUNTAINS WILL MAKE YOU A MAN
Speaking of Week 3, Wednesday and the start of the second half of the race, is when we’ll start to see the men being separated from the boys.
Alaphilippe has been awesome over the course of the first 10 days but it will be a real test of the monument and classics specialist’s credentials to see how long he can remain in yellow.
It’s not impossible, after all Dylan Teuns won the only mountain stage of the Tour so far, Stage 6, which saw riders tackle the La Planche des Belles Filles. The Bahrain-Merida rider, like Alaphilippe, is a puncheur and not a specialist climber.
But with three of the next five stages mountain finishes and three straight lying in wait ahead of the final, largely processional, Stage 21, the coming days will give us a clearer picture of who will be fighting for victory.
As stated, the climbers are hunched, preparing to ascend up the rankings. Reigning champion Geraint Thomas is second. Yates (7th ), Quintana (8th), Martin (9th), Pinot (11th), Valverde (14th), Bardet (15th) and Fuglsang (16th) are nicely poised, with Dane Fuglsang furthest adrift, but only 3:22 off the pace.
The Tour de France has been frantic and fantastic so far. But now it’s about to get a little more fraught.
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