One of the most open editions of the Tour de France in decades will resume on Tuesday with only 39 seconds separating five riders between second and sixth, all of them breathing down the necks of what appears to be a fading Julian Alaphilippe.
The Pyrenees were enough to end the hopes of several big names – Adam Yates, Dan Martin, Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet and more – so who are the men left in contention after 15 stages?
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) – Yellow jersey
Alaphilippe was never supposed to last this long in the yellow jersey – a punchy rider simply trying to make the most of the opportunities the parcours offered him in the opening week. The longer the Frenchman hung on – with his stunning time trial victory and his remarkable ride to second place on the Tourmalet – the more the home fans dreamed. But the first signs of weakness came on the roads above Foix on Sunday, and despite his 95 second lead, it already feels as though Alaphilippe is on the way down.
Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) – Deficit: One minute 35 seconds
The defending champion looked strong in the opening week, bursting away from his rivals on La Planche des Belles Filles and maximising the crosswind chaos on stage 10 to gain more time. But questions emerged in the Pyrenees as he was distanced both on the Tourmalet and the Prat d’Albis. Despite that, Thomas remains second – in pole position if Alaphilippe is finally cracking as the race heads into the Alps. Was this simply a bad patch from which Thomas has emerged in an enviable position? Or was it a sign of deeper problems?
Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) – Deficit: One minute 47 seconds
With so much focus on Thomas’ time losses and the emerging French challenge, Kruijswijk has managed to fly a little under the radar despite sitting just 12 seconds behind the Welshman. Jumbo-Visma, despite losing Wout Van Aert to a crash and splitting their priorities between Kruijswijk and sprinter Dylan Groenewegen, have looked the strongest team in the mountains and Kruijswijk has been impressive if not explosive. The 32-year-old Dutchman has finished fourth in the Giro and the Vuelta before amid a series of good results, but has never managed a Grand Tour podium. Is this finally his year?
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) – Deficit: One minute 50 seconds
Pinot looked to be out of it after being one of a number of contenders to concede 100 seconds to Thomas and Alaphilippe in the stage 10 crosswinds, but he was the star of the Pyrenees and has clawed back those deficits with some brilliant rides. His victory on the Tourmalet was followed by his attacks on the Prat d’Albis, the two rides combined enough to see him gain one minute 32 seconds on Alaphilippe and one minute 41 seconds on Thomas in the space of 48 hours. Given his show of strength and questions over the others, the man in fourth could be the one to finally end a 34-year wait for a home winner.
Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) – Deficit: Two minutes two seconds
Thomas’ 22-year-old team-mate has the young rider classification pretty much sewn up with a 12-minute advantage over Pinot’s domestique David Gaudu, but what are the Colombian’s chances of upgrading white to yellow? The high Alpine stages to come should suit a rider born and raised at altitude so Ineos may have a decision to make very soon. Thomas suggested their status as co-leaders left him between “a rock and a hard place” on stage 15, claiming he had the legs to attack but did not want to help rivals catch Bernal. Ineos must play their cards smartly.
Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) – Deficit: Two minutes 14 seconds
Buchmann made giant strides forward in the Pyrenees, fourth on both the Tourmalet and Prat d’Albis as several other contenders fell by the wayside. The 26-year-old German remains the outsider of all those bunched together at the top of the standings, insisting his goal here is a first career top 10 in a Grand Tour, but the way he is riding he should not be discounted.
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As the peloton swaps the fresh yet constricting air of the Pyrenees for the Alps, the chests of French cycling enthusiasts might also be getting a little bit tighter this week.
Hearts will be beating that little bit faster among both the riders and intrepid – some would say rabid – supporters iconically placed along the roadside of the Tour de France as the race heads into the penultimate stages.
For the riders this is because the end is in sight, but so are the ominous heights of the Alps. There are three mountain stages in a row from July 25-27 to come, three of the Tour’s final four days, with two of them – Tignes and Val Thorens – also tumultuous mountain-top finishes.
For the fans, meanwhile, though they may not be pushing their bodies to the limit in quite the same way, nerves are frayed and hearts thumping nervously. Particularly those fragile French hearts who feel that maybe, just maybe, nearly four decades of hurt is coming to an end.
For 34 years cycling’s greatest spectacle – indeed one of sport’s greatest – has not had a champion of its own. The Tour de France remains the most exciting, gruelling and amazing event sport has to offer. And yet it has lost some of its own identity in the barren years since Bernard Hinault lifted the last of his five titles in 1985.
Le Tour has been won by 23 French riders in all, between them taking 36 wins. Both are records. To put that in context the next three countries with most success – Belgium, Spain and Italy – have produced 18, 12 and 10 champions respectively, just four more than France’s total of 36.
And yet, 34 years have passed since one of their own was enveloped by yellow at the final finish line.
In that time the two other Grand Tour races – the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana – have produced a total of 25 home winners; the Giro 14 and La Vuelta 11.
As for Le Tour, winners over the last 36 years have come from Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy, Spain, Australia, Ireland, Denmark – even Luxembourg.
Laurent Fignon is the closest France has come to ascending to the No1 spot on the podium since Hinault reached such heights. He agonisingly finished just eight seconds adrift of American Greg LeMond in 1989, the Californian powering to three titles in five years.
And yet there appears something special about this year’s race – one that has been so open from the start and that some say has been designed by organisers to finally deliver a home champion.
Whether this is the case or not, a flurry of Frenchman have certainly risen to the occasion on what is the 100th anniversary of the leader’s yellow jersey being introduced to the race.
Among the peaks and high altitude, Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Julian Alaphilippe has been a breath of fresh air. Although not deemed a mountains specialist the Saint-Amand-Montrond man has adorned yellow for 11 of the 15 stages so far, and the last eight straight, winning two individual stages – as well as finishing an impressive second to compatriot Thibaut Pinot atop the Col du Tourmalet on Saturday’s Stage 14 in the perilous Pyrenees. He was also sixth behind winner Dylan Teuns on Stage 6, the inaugural mountain stage.
A puncheur by trade – someone who specialises in rolling terrain with short, steep climbs – overall Tour de France glory would normally seem beyond Alaphilippe.
He showed his first signs of cracking on Stage 15, finishing 11th and seeing his advantage over Simon Yates, Pinot, Mikel Landa, Egan Bernal, Geraint Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk and Alejandro Valverde eroded.
But there is something distinctly abnormal about the 27-year-old’s stubborn pursuit of the title. He is continuing to hang tough with the mountain men who litter the General Classification’s top 10 – like reigning champion Thomas and Pinot. Alaphilippe is the only one who isn’t an expert climber or a noted all-rounder.
But he is in the form of his life, coming into this year’s race having claimed the Milan-San Remo, Strade Bianche and La Fleche Wallonne titles.
Pinot has burst into contention in recent days, helped by his terrific triumph on the iconic Tourmalet. He was second to Yates the following day, the Melisey man putting more time into his rivals as he shot up to fourth. He’s now 1’ 50” adrift of his fellow countryman’s lead and hopes have surely switched from a place on the podium (he was third in 2014) to overall glory.
As if to force home the French feel-good factor even more, Warren Barguil, Guillaume Martin, David Gaudu (second behind Bernal in the young rider category) and Romain Bardet – runner-up in 2016 and third the following year – are all placed inside the top 20.
After a flat stage in Nimes to gently ease the peloton back into proceedings on Tuesday following the second and final rest day, Stage 17 takes the race into the Alps at Gap, followed by treks to Valloire and the Col du Galibier which climbs to a breathtaking 2,642m on Stage 18.
Stage 19 takes the riders on another gruelling slog up the Col de l’Iseran – the Tour’s highest peak this year at 2,770m – towards Tignes.
The penultimate Stage 20, meanwhile, drags riders up to Val Thorens – famous for being Europe’s highest ski resort. Any one of the main protagonists failing to ascend its 2,365m summit will find themselves on a slippery slope down the standings.
Pinot seems to be peaking at the right time and appears the strongest climber right now, but former soldier Alaphilippe is well drilled and will want to produce a final charge.
If either of them can provide a fruitful finish, France will flip.
Although Thomas was able to cut the deficit to Julian Alaphilippe in the yellow jersey on Sunday, Thibaut Pinot picked up significant time over the weekend and Thomas has twice seen his rivals leave him behind as he admitted he was not feeling 100 per cent.
But as riders enjoyed a rest day on Monday, Thomas said: “Obviously on the Tourmalet I wasn’t feeling 100 per cent but it was more just a fuelling thing over a few days rather than anything else. Yesterday I finished really strongly so it’s not an issue.”
Among the riders to get away from Thomas on both of the previous two stages was his young Ineos team-mate Egan Bernal, and after Sunday’s Stage 15 Thomas said he was between “a rock and a hard place” as he could not make a late move himself without helping Alaphilippe close down on the Colombian.
But the Welshman played down any concerns about their status as co-leaders and said he had told Bernal to ride his own race on the Prat d’Albis due to concerns over his own condition.
“We stick together,” he said. “Yesterday I said on the radio I didn’t feel great coming into the last climb, but as it turned out I did feel great at the top.
“The main thing is going into the Alps I feel motivated to try and finish this Tour off well.
“It’s been a slightly up and down race compared to last year but the main thing is I finish strong and I’m itching to go a lot better there.”
Without Pinot emerging as the strongest man on the climbs, he looks like the man to beat in the Alps but Thomas said he would have no qualms going head-to-head with a man being roared on by French crowds desperate for a first home winner in 34 years.
“I’d love it, I’d relish it,” he said. “Bring it on.”
This year’s Tour feels like the most open in years, in large part because Ineos – formerly Team Sky – have not been able to dominate their rivals in the way they did in winning six of the previous seven editions.
But team principal Sir Dave Brailsford, so accustomed to being in control, insisted that he was enjoying the tactical battle as Alaphilippe’s unexpected presence in the yellow jersey changes the dynamics.
“Nobody is really controlling the race as such,” he said. “It’s way more exciting but it’s more like chess in another sense.
“It’s brilliant fun. We’ve sat here on the second day of a Grand Tour so many times and people say we’ve closed the race down and it’s not been exciting.
“That’s not been the case this time. It’s fun to be involved in one of most exciting editions in a long time.”