Stage 19 of the Tour de France ended in chaos as hailstorms caused a landslide and forced organisers to stop the race before the final climb.
Organisers declared that times would be taken from the top of the Col de l’Iseran, putting Team Ineos rider Egan Bernal into the yellow jersey after he crested the highest point of the Tour first after attacking out of the group of favourites on the 126.5km stage to Tignes.
Though the peloton could not ride the final climb, Bernal was taken by car to receive his maillot jaune on the podium in Tignes before any official results had been published.
“It’s incredible,” said the 22-year-old, now the clear favourite to become the first Colombian to win the Tour, and the youngest rider in the post-war era.
“When I had the jersey and the lion, I wanted to cry. Tomorrow, I will do my best, but it still hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Bernal had attacked after Ineos team-mate Geraint Thomas and Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk made moves in what proved a successful bid to shake off race leader Julian Alaphilippe, who cracked midway up the Iseran.
When official results for the day did appear, they showed Bernal 48 seconds ahead of Alaphilippe, with Thomas listed one minute and 16 seconds down in third place. Kruijswijk is fourth, one minute 28 down, with Emanuel Buchmann a further 27 seconds back in fifth.
Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said he had mixed feelings about taking the yellow jersey in such circumstances, insisting it was reward for the way his team approached the stage.
“Fortune favours the brave at the end of the day,” said Brailsford.
“We were always going to take today on and I thought the guys rode really well, to be honest…
“We don’t control the weather. In one way, I’m really happy but in another way, I’m still really concerned for everyone else out there.”
Asked if the weather had helped his team win the Tour, as now seems likely, Brailsford replied: “It didn’t. No, we’ll win the Tour de France because of how we ride.”
Commissaries made the call to stop the race after the storms led to a landslide in the valley below Val-d’Isere, with the race route covered in rubble.
Alaphilippe looked frustrated as he climbed into a Deceuninck-Quick Step car as he would have hoped to have taken time back on the long descent, though it will never be known if he could have avoided further losses on the final climb up to Tignes.
It was yet another dramatic twist in the Tour, described as the most exciting edition since 1989, and could well be a decisive one.
Bernal now needs only to survive one final mountain stage on Saturday before potentially celebrating his first Grand Tour victory in Paris a day later.
The neutralisation came as a huge blow to Thomas’ hopes of defending his title. The Welshman may have hoped to bridge the gap to his team-mate in the final 30 kilometres but was denied that opportunity.
Thomas was seen talking to Tour director Christian Prudhomme in Val-d’Isere, but the Frenchman could only gesticulate that there was nothing he could do given the conditions of the road up ahead, where diggers and ploughs were working to clear a path.
It proved a brutal day for French fans, and not just those waiting in Tignes for a race that never arrived.
As Alaphilippe’s grip on yellow was finally loosened, Thibaut Pinot’s dream of becoming the first French winner of the Tour de France for 34 years was ended in cruel circumstances when the Groupama-FDJ rider was forced to abandon just 36 kilometres into the stage.
Pinot had already been seen receiving medical treatment at the back of the peloton but continued to rapidly lose time, and his team revealed it was the result of a muscular injury first suffered on Wednesday when he struck his left leg with a handlebar.
“As he avoided a crash, his left knee hit the handlebar and the pain just got worse,” Groupama-FDJ sports director Philippe Mauduit said.
“We’ve been hoping for an improvement but we knew this morning that it would be complicated if the race was hard. He’s been in pain since the start. It wasn’t possible to keep riding.”
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Team Ineos’ attempts to break Julian Alaphilippe on the Galibier served mostly to reopen their own leadership debate as Egan Bernal leapfrogged Geraint Thomas on Stage 18 of the Tour de France.
Bernal attacked three kilometres from the summit of the Galibier, the last peak on a brutal 208 kilometres in the Alps, quickly distancing the group of favourites.
But when defending champion Thomas tried his own move one kilometre later, perhaps seeking to bridge to his young team-mate, he served only to drag Thibaut Pinot, Steven Kruijswijk and others with him.
They succeeded in dropping Alaphilippe on the steepest section of the climb, but only temporarily as the Frenchman used his outstanding descending skills to get back on the long descent to the finish, retaining his yellow jersey for a remarkable 14th day.
If these were questionable tactics from Ineos, those questions only multiplied as their co-leaders gave differing answers after the stage.
“We wanted a hard pace and unfortunately we ran out of guys,” Thomas said.
New #TDF2019 GC after 18 stages:— Team INEOS (@TeamINEOS) July 25, 2019
1. Alaphilippe (DQT) 75h18'49"
2. @Eganbernal (@TeamINEOS) +1'30"
3. @GeraintThomas86 (@TeamINEOS) +1'35"
4. Kruijswijk (TJV) +1'47"
5. Pinot (GFC) +1'50" pic.twitter.com/lQ0EFlHNDL
“The call was made for Egan to go and that kicked it off. I couldn’t do much then other than follow.
“I had a little dig just to see if anything was going to happen and the guys followed me over the top. It was a good day for Egan gaining some time.”
But Bernal insisted it was Thomas who had told him to attack.
“It was G’s decision,” the 22-year-old said. “He asked me how I was feeling. I said, ‘I’m feeling really good’ so he asked me to attack to try to move the race and he tried to come with me.
“But when he saw the other guys on his wheel he just stayed with them. But I attacked because he asked me to attack.”
On paper, the end result looks good. Alaphilippe may still hold yellow, but Ineos sit second and third, in pole position for when the expected implosion comes.
But the impression remains that Thomas’ move limited the gains Bernal might have made by increasing the pace behind him.
“We needed to gain time on Alaphilippe,” Bernal added. “I don’t care what happened with G. He is my team-mate and we needed to gain time.
“You never know how the other guys are and if you try to race hard at some point you can drop Alaphilippe and it’s on. I think we did a really good race.”
It is just another way in which Alaphilippe’s sensational run in yellow is changing this Tour, which remains wide open with only two mountain stages left.
Throughout the Pyrenees, teams raced as though waiting for him to fall away, but the first day in the Alps produced more pro-active attempts to make it happen.
He looked in trouble late on the Galibier, but the 19km descent into Valloire favoured the Frenchman, who flew down the mountainside, not only wiping out his deficit but nosing in front of the pack to make his point.
“I went to the front because I love going fast downhill, and I also wanted to show them that I came back,” the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider said.
Bernal may have clawed back time, but Alaphilippe still leads by 90 seconds, with Thomas a further five seconds back in third.
Jumbo-Visma’s Kruijswijk dropped to fourth, still one minute 47 seconds off yellow and three seconds ahead of Groupama-FDJ’s Pinot.
It proved a rough day for Kruijswijk. He saw key lieutenant George Bennett suffer a heavy fall on the final descent after beginning his day with a routine yet high-profile visit from anti-doping officials, who boarded the team bus in the paddock 45 minutes before the stage began, having missed the team at their hotel.
Thomas and Bernal had a similar visit of their own before breakfast, another little added stress before final confirmation came at the start that Luke Rowe’s expulsion from the Tour would not be overturned following Wednesday’s altercation with Tony Martin, who was also disqualified.
The stage victory went to Nairo Quintana, who salvaged some success from the race after his own bid for yellow fell flat.
Starting the day almost 10 minutes down, the Colombian was allowed to join a large breakaway.
The group splintered on the Col d’Izoard before Quintana powered away from Romain Bardet and Alexander Lutsenko on the Galibier to claim his third career Tour win, while Bardet had to settle for the polka-dot jersey as the King of the Mountains.
Talking of leadership debates, Quintana’s win moved him up to seventh overall, three minutes 54 seconds off yellow and now a minute ahead of team-mate Mikel Landa, who seemed unimpressed by the idea of working for Quintana over the next two days.
“Pfft,” he said before a long pause. “We will see, no? We have to play it tactically with our riders.”
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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