A Celebration of the 2019 Tour de France- Chapter 3
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
Stage 15: Limoux – Foix-Prat d’Albis
Stage winner: Simon Yates
Yellow Jersey: Julian Alaphillipe
After providing yesterday's incredible instalment of Tour de France action, the Pyrenees bid their farewell today with one last summit finish in the region, with the stage finishing up the Prat d’Albis in a relatively short and relatively steep uphill climb that is making its Tour debut. Whilst yesterday was an atypical stage to see Alaphillipe doing so well, with giant mountains at altitude, today is more up his street and a stage he would have been favourite for at the beginning of the race, were he to have been in a breakaway at the pointy end of the stage. It promises to be another tough test in the legs as two Category 1 climbs precede the final uphill.
On the 2nd Category Col de Montségur is where the day's break is first beginning to accumulate, with many of the losers of yesterday involved, such as Bauke Mollema, Nairo Quintana, Dan Martin and Romain Bardet. Once more Vincenzo Nibali sniffs an opportunity and slots himself into the break. At the summit the race for the polka dot jersey is on, including some big hitters, with Bardet, Mike Woods and Nibali sprinting to be the first across the line. Woods takes maximum points, with Nibali and Bardet behind him.
Today sees the first time that the Deceuninck-Quick Step team and Alaphillipe himself are vocal in their ambition to see Julian carry the maillot jaune all the way to Paris. As a result, we see an inspired ride by Elia Viviani, who is working amongst the leading riders on the initial climb. The sprint team has been transformed into a team defending the race lead, with each and every man exceeding initial race expectations and finding another level in service of their now undisputed team leader. On the Port de Lers it is remarkable to see Viviani still sitting in front of Julian Alaphillipe whilst their teammate and 10th placed overall Enric Mas is dropped from the peloton. Yesterday has obviously taken too much out of the man who finished 2nd at the 2018 Vuelta a España.
The Port de Lers serves as the first Category 1 climb of the day, with action in the breakaway kicking off 10km from the summit as simultaneously Nibali is dropped whilst Simon Yates attacks off the front, determined to make amends for the team after yesterday's collapse from his brother Adam. Whilst the attack does not last long, the front group is increasingly whittled down as they approach the summit and as they ride into the final kilometre, Quintana is up to 2nd place on the virtual GC, with the break holding a 5'24" advantage over the peloton. Bardet goes unchallenged this time in taking maximum points over the crest of the climb and Woods is unfortunately boxed in. Onto the next climb the riders move, with the second and final Category 1 climb of the day, Mur de Péguère, being the location where the break's advantage begins to tumble. As they approach the summit, Simon Geschke is a lone attacker with the poursuivants 34 seconds back. 3'42" back on the CCC man are the peloton, which are led by Kasper Asgreen and the remarkable Elia Viviani, until the Italian sprinter runs out of legs 5km from the summit, ending a brilliant day's ride in support of the maillot jaune. By the end of the climb it is only Dries Devenyns left in support of Alaphillipe, in the first display of the team being exposed and incapable of supporting a GC push. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come in the third week.
Unable to repeat the feat of taking maximum points on the climb, Bardet crests the Mur de Péguère in third wheel, behind Yates and Geschke, with the break being reduced to an elite group of climbers that contains the likes of Dan Martin and Nairo Quintana. Behind, the maillot jaune group is equally reduced and is led by Jumbo Visma. Slightly ahead of the group are Marc Soler and Mikel Landa, with the latter having attacked from the main bunch and the former sitting up from the breakaway in order to lend a helping hand, or pair of legs. As the maillot jaune group come into the final 17km, Landa and his two teammates (now joined by Andrey Amador) have developed a lead of 1'26" and Alaphillipe is totally isolated, which has forced him into performing the task of returning back and forth to the team car in order to gain the essentials such as bidons and energy gels.
The two Simons are working together at the front of the race alone, with Geschke and Yates beginning the final 11.8km climb with a 1'35" gap over the remainders of the breakaway and 3'17" over the group containing the maillot jaune. Having used up Amador and Soler, Landa bridges across to the second group on the road which includes his teammate Quintana. The two men do not even acknowledge each other, it is safe to say they aren't on the best of terms. 1'26" ahead of this group, Yates attacks and convincingly drops Geschke, going in search of his second stage win of this Tour. Sensing the oncoming favourites group, Landa quickly moves to the front of his group and mounts an attack, which drops his teammate Quintana amongst others. This move ultimately drops all men in the second group bar the German climber Lennard Kämna, who is only distanced with 6.8km to go as Landa attacks once more, in his trademark, Pantani-esque style.
In a repeat of yesterday's Tourmalet stage, Gaudu sits at the front of the favourites group and sets a mighty pace on behalf of his team leader in second wheel, Thibaut Pinot. Just like yesterday, Gaudu's work puts others in trouble and Barguil and Uran are both dropped. The fine work from the young Frenchman tees up Pinot for an attack coming 6.5km from the summit, with Egan Bernal being the first to respond. It is a masterclass in teamwork from Groupama-FDJ, immediately as Pinot attacks, Gaudu almost comes to a standstill in fatigue and it is Sébastien Reichenbach from the breakaway who is immediately in place to slingshot Pinot further up the climb. From one teammate's wheel to another, Pinot is on a stormer and is only matched by Buchmann, Bernal and Alaphillipe, with Thomas and Kruijswijk being distanced. Reichenbach finishes his turn and once more Pinot accelerates. Although Buchmann and Bernal follow, it is the first time that Alaphillipe is put into difficulty and he is dropped. 5km from the summit, it is critical for Alaphillipe to steady into a rhythm, but he dances on the pedals and attempts to sprint back into contention.
At the front of the race, Yates holds 1'07" over Mikel Landa, who is being reeled in by Pinot, Buchmann and Bernal. There is no question of Bernal waiting for Thomas and he sits in the wheel of Pinot as they drop the Bora-Hansgrohe leader. The camera swings back towards Alaphillipe and he is heard grunting in pain as he buries his body to try and catch the riders in front. It is no use, however, as Pinot is powering his way up the mountain, gurning all the way in his trademark style that leaves no confusion over his suffering. At this point they are all suffering, but Pinot is suffering at the fastest speed, a handy trick to have as a GC rider! The Frenchman flicks the elbow, but Bernal says no, with his team leader in arrears. As a result, Pinot says 'to hell with it' and opens up a gap to Bernal. Whilst the Colombian bridges quickly, Pinot motors his way clear once more and stands up out of the saddle, lighting up the Tour with form that he hasn't showed since the 2018 Giro d'Italia. It is a mesmerising performance that is following up his win on the Col du Tourmalet a day earlier. With the rest day coming tomorrow, there is no question of energy being left in the tank, the Pyrenees belong to one man and that man's name is Thibaut Pinot.
Behind the man who pets goats, Alaphillipe has worked his way backwards to the Thomas group, that also contains Steven Kruijswijk and is now 42 seconds behind Pinot. The Dutchman attacks but this is quickly reeled in by Wout Poels on behalf of teammate Thomas. The German pair of Kämna and Buchmann bridge across to Bernal, who is up to third place in the virtual standings, but only for mere seconds as Pinot soon takes on that monicker.
"Thibaut Pinot is not chasing third, he did that 5 years ago, he is chasing first!"
With less than 3km to go, defending champion Geraint Thomas accelerates from his chasing group and this puts Alaphilippe out of the back. Wout Poels relays this information to Thomas over the race radio, and it is a lonely battle for Alaphillipe to try and hold onto yellow into the rest day. Meanwhile at the front, Simon Yates enters the final kilometre and sits a minute ahead of the pair of Landa and Pinot. A stage winner already at Bagnères-de-Bigorre, the man from Bury, Simon Yates, sits up, takes the applause and punches the air as he crosses the line in first.
Pinot sprints to second place on the day and takes the 6 second time bonus ahead of Mikel Landa, with Buchmann and Bernal crossing the line together behind them. Next to come through is Kämna, shortly followed by the trio of Thomas, Kruijswijk and Valverde. Battling bravely after being dropped on two occasions, Alaphillipe grinds his way to the line and loses 28 seconds to Thomas, showing vulnerability for the first time in this Tour. The result is Alaphillipe retaining the lead of the race, but now with a reduced gap of 1'35" over Thomas, with Kruijswijk third at 1'47", Pinot fourth at 1'50" and Bernal fifth at 2'02".
Reflections atop of Prat d’Albis
Today's stage proved decisive in the GC ranks and whilst yesterday's stage, but not the day, belonged to Thibaut Pinot, let there be no doubt that today belonged to the Frenchman, with the stage deservedly belonging to The Flying Black Pudding, Simon Yates. Despite all but a few exceptional breakaway riders being caught and dropped by the chasing group of favourites, Yates' victory never looked in any doubt and not once did his lead fall under a minute, as he nonchalantly pedalled his way to stage honours once more. There is an undeniable effervescent nature in the way that the Lancastrian climbs up mountains, with his form in the past week mirroring that of the first 18 days at the 2018 Giro d'Italia, where he put in one of the most breathtaking performances of the 21st century, seemingly able to drop any rider with ease. Once more he is climbing at his best after a disappointing 2019 Giro, providing solace to his team which were disappointed by Adam's performance yesterday. In contrasting style to Yates, Pinot's climbing leaves nothing to the imagination, with his gurning and breathing on full display and no poker face in his repertoire. It has been a delight to watch Pinot climb in the Pyrenees and the race seems to be heading in one direction and one direction only. With the Pyrenees belonging to 'Pinot Noir', the race is set for him to seal his first Tour de France victory with similar performances in the Alps. Egan Bernal is performing better than his elder team leader in Thomas, but is further back on GC and was no match for Pinot today. Meanwhile, Alaphillipe collapsed to a bench in exhaustion after the finish, with his vulnerability showing for the first time in 15 days. With high mountains still to come and with 'Loulou' becoming increasingly devoid of teammates, his seemingly impossible dream of keeping the maillot jaune until Paris is quickly ebbing away. Let the riders enjoy tomorrow's rest day and let us look forward to a blockbuster conclusion in the Alps. Before then however, it is time once more for the sprinters to battle it out, a deserved outing for them lies on stage 16, after courageously fighting their way through the mountains.
© Getty Images
Stage 16: Nîmes - Nîmes
Stage winner: Caleb Ewan
Yellow Jersey: Julian Alaphillipe
Waking up and looking at the road book, the sprinters will be relieved and excited to see a flat day on offer today, with the parcours certainly having the look of a transitional stage that links the Pyrenees and the Alps.
At the front of the peloton, Jumbo Visma are patrolling and visibly trying to ensure the breakaway gets no more than a handful of riders, which will ensure a smooth day for the sprinters teams in bringing everything back together for the finish. This duty unsurprisingly falls to the Dutch team, with the usually-reliable Deceuninck-Quick Step having been worked hard in the Pyrenees on behalf of Julian Alaphillipe. Off the front are initially Stéphane Rossetto (Cofidis) and Alexis Gougeard (AG2R La Mondiale), before being joined by Łukasz Wiśniowski (CCC), Paul Ourselin (Total Direct Énergie) and Lars Bak Ytting (Dimension Data). These 5 will be the men tasked with trying to cause an upset to the likes of Ewan, Groenewegen and Sagan, who will be hoping for a bunch sprint in Nîmes. It will be interesting to see how Elia Viviani fares after putting in a great ride for his team in stage 15's mountains.
One of the day's most striking images comes when the peloton march across Le Post du Gard in the midday sun. As an ancient Roman aqueduct bridge that has stood since First Century AD, its sand coloured brickwork is picturesque as is juxtaposes the cloudy green of the water below.
With 130km or so left in the day and on an innocuous ride hand bend, a bad few days turn worse for Geraint Thomas, who comes down after Gianni Moscon touches his wheel from behind. He is sporting a few cuts and grazes, but looks more annoyed at the situation than he is injured. Pulling up alongside the team car, it is time for the Team Ineos staff to wash out the cut and reduce the risk of infection. After a couple of days of suffering in the mountains, this is the last thing Thomas would have wanted, with the defending champion and all of the riders battling through the remarkable heatwave that is currently besieging the race.
"There is no such thing as a fall without damage, even the little scrapes that we can already see, that interrupts your sleep... it all adds up and creates more fatigue."
Perhaps signalling that he will not be a contender when the stage reaches its pointy end, Elia Viviani unleashes a strong sprint to win the intermediate points in Vallérargues, whilst Peter Sagan sits up and takes a lesser placing behind, safe in the knowledge of his tremendous lead in the race for the green jersey. Another sprinter unlikely to feature in Nîmes is Cees Bol, after the Sunweb rider goes down in a crash 28km from home. Also caught up in the crash is Astana leader Jakob Fuglsang (9th overall), with the Dane leaving the race after suffering what looks to be a collarbone injury.
For the last 60km of the stage, the peloton holds the breakaway like puppets on a string, always within a minute, but they choose to prolong the suffering of those out front and the gap fluctuates between 40 seconds and a minute. The greatest the advantage has been was around 2'11", but it has been a day totally controlled by the pace set at the front of the peloton. It is a cruel game, but the sponsors of those out front will be pleased, their task has been met. However, do not be fooled, the Tour has plenty more to give today. Despite the chase being taken up in earnest by the peloton 25km from the finish, the breakaway is stubborn and the riders are able to maintain a 44 second gap as they mount the final uphill of the day. It is a determined showing from the 5-man group and will set alarm bells ringing in the peloton should this resistance continue. The burden of the chase is entirely on Jumbo Visma's shoulders, forcing their climbers Laurens De Plus and George Bennett to work on the front, something they would have wished to have avoided on a flat day. Sensing danger and perhaps feeling a tinge of empathy, Kasper Asgreen of Deceuninck-Quick Step comes to the front and begins to help, acting as a death blow to the chances of the break. The gap soon begins to tumble and drops to 10 seconds, before a second resistance is formed by the determined by out front. The pace of both groups skyrockets in the final 7km and the gap persists into the final 4km. The five men are working in total unison and the through and off riding is proving successful, opening the gap to 12 seconds as they come under 3km to go. Despite a thrilling battle being waged, the peloton make the catch underneath the 2km to go arch.
Into the final 700m, it is Groenewegen followed by Ewan, with Sagan on the Australian's wheel. At the 500m mark, Deceuninck-Quick Step bring their lead-out to the fore and Sagan jumps on the wheel of Viviani, who is clearly fit and raring to go after the rest day. Caleb Ewan is the first to open up the sprint in the final 200m and despite a strong showing from Viviani, it is the Australian hot shot who takes the stage victory, to the delight of the SBS commentary pair. It is an extra special victory for Ewan, with both his wife and child in attendance.
Reflections in Nîmes
Today's stage was just rewards for Ewan, having put the homework in and riding the final few kilometres before the stage start. In an explosive show of speed, Ewan takes his second stage victory after a rest day and confirms himself as the fastest man in the race. Credit must be given to Rossetto, Gougeard, Wiśniowski, Ourselin and Lars Bak, who is due to retire at the end of the season. The five men mounted a tremendous display in the breakaway, defying the peloton for many more kilometres than they were comfortable with. Their work at the front ensured that this was not a simple sprinting stage and gave the fans plenty of entertainment to keep interest throughout the day. Chapeau to the riders and a hearty well done to Ewan, who is increasingly looking like the favourite for stage 21's finish in Paris. Each day now feels like another day closer to Paris, with the end seemingly in sight. The Alps beckon, but first a stage into the foothills of Gap, which look suited to the Classics riders, with many bumps and lumps to hopefully provide a rip-roaring day of action tomorrow.
© Bettini Photo
Stage 17: Point du Gard - Gap
Stage winner: Matteo Trentin
Yellow Jersey: Julian Alaphillipe
After providing a breathtaking backdrop during yesterday's stage, Post du Gard serves as today's depart-point, with yet more stunning imagery being provided to the broadcasters. We are entering the foothills of the Alps and Thomas De Gendt (who else?) is the first man to attack after a kilometre of racing. The commentators are perplexed at first as to why nobody attacked from the off, but it is soon chalked up to a tough 200km of racing ahead, in the blistering heat that is reaching 35 degrees celsius and above.
De Gendt takes with him 32 riders amid the backdrop of Les Dentelles de Montmirail, a natural rock formation move the vineyards that provide yet more Jurassic World-esque landscapes to this Tour. With no threats to the maillot jaune within the breakaway, a gap of 5'30"+ is allowed to open up over the next 60km, before Andrea Pasqualon takes the intermediate sprint in Vaison-la-Romaine, providing handy prize money to he and his team. In the distance we see Le Mont Ventoux, a mountain not being used in this year's edition, but still sure to strike fear into the riders' hearts as they pass nearby.
After placing 2nd on yesterday's stage, Elia Viviani is once more working at the front of the peloton on behalf of Julian Alaphillipe, a burden not laid on the shoulders of the race's other sprinters. Should he fail to win another stage at this year's Tour, let it be forgiven due to his excess energy spent in service of the surprise race leader. It is all smiles at the front of the peloton as, 12'35" after the breakaway, they hit a patch of rain which cools the riders off, drawing laughs and joy from the conversation between Alaphillipe and William Bonnet.
"Today is the last big opportunity for guys like myself, so I don't doubt there is going to be a lot of aggression".
Simon Clarke of EF Education First clearly identifies today as a massive opportunity for the breakaway. He heeds his advice and has slotted himself in the leading group.
The day is spent opening up a gap for the break, with the stage firmly in their hands as they enter the final 40km with a 14'28" advantage over the relaxed peloton, who appear to have taken a de facto rest day ahead of tomorrow's Queen stage. Tom Scully of EF Education First is the initial rider to make an attack at the front of the break, closely followed by one of yesterday's fabulous breakaway five, Alexis Gougeard. Neither of the accelerations stick and Nils Politt of Katusha Alpecin is the next rider to press on. He finished 2nd in Paris-Roubaix the preceding April and is a dangerous man to let go. As a result, the break soon comes together once more, but the attacks continue to rein. A more select group emerges at the tête de la course, which includes Daniel Oss, Kasper Asgreen, Greg Van Avermaet and Matteo Trentin, amongst others. Th group build a 35 second advantage, not helped by Trentin who, despite being the best sprinter in the group, puts in a couple of digs which spit a few riders out the back and reduces the leading group to an elite selection of 10. Attacks such as those by Trentin quickly settle down and the riders advance in the shadow of La Montagne de Céüse, a rock formation popular for climbers and which stands impressively with its limestone face on show.
Col de la Sentinelle, at 5.2km long, serves as the final test for the riders and leaves them 8.5km from the line in Gap at the summit. It isn't the steepest of climbs, with an average gradient of 5.4%, which is perhaps the temptation that Matteo Trentin needs and he attacks at the foot, unzipping his jersey completely to leave his golden necklace swinging from side to side. With multiple Tour de France stage victories, one at the Giro d'Italia and four stage victories at the Vuelta a España, he soon builds a 15 second advantage over Pierre-Luc Perichon and a 27 second gap to the rest of the 'front group'.
Meanwhile back in the peloton, Deceuninck-Quick Step sit on the front of the group that, at 18 minutes in arrears, looks set to roll into the finish without any undue stress for maillot jaune Alaphillipe. He will have three stages in the Alps to try and cling onto his race lead, an incredibly tough task with the mountains to come.
Heading into the final kilometre of the climb, Trentin has increased his lead to almost 30 seconds to the Frenchman, with the Van Avermaet group a further 13 seconds back. He looks set to take Mitchelton-Scott's fourth stage victory of the Tour, with the final 8.5km into Gap practically all coming downhill. Despite a brave chase from Kasper Asgreen behind, the European champion Trentin rolls into Gap well over 30 seconds in hand and takes his first stage victory of this year's Tour.
A point of controversy emerges when Luke Rowe and Tony Martin are shown arguing on the front of the peloton. Coming off a left-hand bend, Martin swerves maliciously in front of Rowe, to which the Welshman responds by putting his hands on Martin. It is an extraordinary set of circumstances, which is out of character for both men, and they are both subsequently thrown off the race, dealing a big blow to team leaders Geraint Thomas and Steven Kruijswijk.
Reflections in Gap
Today's stage was an exercise in breakaway racing, with the only source of action in the peloton coming from Luke Rowe and Tony Mart. Whilst we bid adieu to the pair, today is a source of happiness as I was rewarded with one of the best stages of the 2019 Tour. as Matteo Trentin defied those, myself included, who question his commitment to attacking despite having a tremendous sprint in his legs. He sailed away from the likes of Greg Van Avermaet and Kasper Asgreen on the Col de la Sentinelle, never looking likely to be reeled back in. Once he had opened up a 20 second gap, the bird had flown the nest and his fellow breakaway compatriots never saw him again. Prior to this stage-winning attack, the break had slowly been whittled down with frequent attacks in the final 40km. The breakaway could explode in a blockbuster display of attacks due to their enormous gap over the peloton, which allowed riders to tear up the rulebook in breakaway teamwork, safe in the knowledge that the stage winner would ultimately come from whichever select group emerged. Ultimately that select group contained a number of elite riders who would not even have the chance to compete for stage honours, with Trentin having the greatest legs on the day and not giving the others a sniff. With a gorgeous backdrop in the foothills of the Alps and an explosive final 40km of racing, today was grand stage to behold and takes us nicely into the high mountains. The following three days are packed with climbing in the Alps and the greatest climber over these three days is likely to be the man who will win the Tour. In the Pyrenees, France was given a dream on two fronts, with Pinot on stellar form and Alaphillipe in yellow, will they be able to deliver upon the French dream and bring the maillot jaune home in Paris? It is sure to be a thrilling watch and I cannot wait to relive three of the most dramatic days in Tour de France history.
© Getty Images
Stage 18: Embrun - Valloire
Stage winner: Nairo Quintana
Yellow Jersey: Julian Alaphillipe
If you are a fan of the history of cycling and the Tour de France, then today is the day for you, as the riders pass over three iconic climbs that have created legends and killed off wannabe greats. The Col de Vars (2,109m), Col d'Izoard (2,360m) and Col du Galibier (2,642m) provide the day's high points, with the Galibier serving as the highest point of this year's Tour. With an advantage of only 1'35" over defending champion and winner upon Alpe d'Huez last year, Geraint Thomas, it is hard to see Julian Alaphillipe retaining his race lead into Valloire at the end of the day. Rather than deterring the faithful, this will only inspire the French fans to turn out in their thousands to will on their 'Loulou'.
It was the Col du Galibier, from the same southern route in 2011, that added yet another chapter to the remarkable tale of Tommy Voeckler in the maillot jaune. Taking the race lead in not too dissimilar circumstances from Alaphillipe, he too was expected to lose the jersey within a few days. However, as the race proceeded he too was stubborn in his refusal to give up the lead and going into the final few days in the Alps, the impossible dream of him keeping the jersey into Paris seemed on. Quickly running out of ideas, the Schleck brothers, Andy and Frank, mounted a plan of action to remove the heroic Frenchman. On the Col d'Izoard, more than 70km from the finish at the summit of the Galibier, Andy attacked and built up a lead of over three minutes, a lead that slowly began to decrease at the foot of the Galibier due to the work done behind by eventual race winner Cadel Evans. Despite slowly coming down, his lead was such that at the top of the Col du Lautaret, which serves as the foot of the Galibier, Schleck looked set to take yellow at the end of the stage and end Voeckler's dream. Alas, it would prove to be a remarkable ride on the Galibier from Voeckler, who totally buried himself and found himself alone in the upper slopes, in a battle against the clock. The Frenchman would miraculously hold onto the race lead at the summit and only lose it on Alpe d'Huez the following day. The Galibier had written another chapter into the storied history of the Tour de France. The French masses and 'Loulou' himself will hope to see another such inspired ride today.
Forming after 40km of tough terrain, the breakaway is yet again stacked with high calibre talent such as Romain Bardet, Adam Yates and Nairo Quintana. In a repeat of previous stages this year, the breakaway is over 30 men deep and they begin the Col de Vars with a 6 minute advantage over the peloton, led by Deceuninck-Quick Step. Quintana began the day in 12th place at 9'30" behind Alaphillipe, so a watchful eye must be maintained over the Colombian. After being set up by a strong pace on the front of the break, Tim Wellens is able to capitalise in the KOM competition and pips Romain Bardet to the top of the Vars, with the present KOM jersey holder picking up a further 10 points. Back in the peloton there is a fall that brings down George Bennett and Nicholas Roche, with the Kiwi barely able to remount his bike with pain. Bennett is one of the toughest riders in the bunch, having experienced monumental rib issues throughout his career that is hard to even fathom, but this is a big blow to his team leader Steven Kruijswijk and the Dutchman will be pondering how much Bennett will now be able to do for the team as the day progresses. The worries are not solely reserved for Kruijswijk, as further riders are put into trouble who would be expected to help their team leaders further into the day. David Gaudu is dropped on the Col d'Izoard, shortly followed by Gianni Moscon and Patrick Konrad.
Up front it is time to apply the pressure, with GC dropouts Adam Yates, Bardet and Quintana all on the offensive, taking with them the capable climber of Astana, Alexey Lutsenko. These accelerations are in response to the 50 second gap that has opened up to the tête de la course, which is formed by Greg Van Avermaet and Julien Bernard. Without a thought for their estranged colleague Quintana, Movistar are set to work on the front of the peloton, led by Marc Soler who is quickly whittling down the group to the top 10 on GC and a very select number of domestiques and strays. As the break cross the summit of the the Col d'Izoard, the riders come together once more and descend off the Italian-facing side of the mountain, having survived La Casse Déserte.
The race organisers have cheekily designated the Col du Galibier as 23km long, beginning 41.2km from home. However, this is a white lie as the initial 14km are in fact on the Col du Lautaret, before a right hand bend at the summit takes the riders onto the steep 9km of the southern ascent of the Col du Galibier. At the summit of the Lautaret (2,058m) lies a small village that includes a dessert store; unfortunately for the riders, there is little chance of enjoying the delicacies on offer today.
Approaching the top of the Col du Lautaret, the attacks are violent at the front of the breakaway, dispatching Tiesj Benoot, Adam Yates and Leonard Kämna. The leading group is 5-men strong as they turn right onto the Col du Galibier, which stands at 8.5 km long from the southern ascent and has an average gradient of 6.7%, peaking at 11% in frequent spells. With a gap of 4'38" over the peloton, the breakaway should be confident of summiting the Galibier and descending down the northern side of the mountain into Valloire, the town which sits in the valley between the Col du Télégraphe and Col du Galibier. It promises to be an almighty battle between great riders in the break, with the group consisting Damiano Caruso, Romain Bardet, Alexey Lutsenko, Nairo Quintana and 'Rusty' Woods.
Mounting the slopes of the hallowed Col du Galibier, Alexey Lutsenko is the first man to attack and is closely tracked by Nairo Quintana, who looks comfortable on the lower slopes. The initial couple of km of the Galibier are around 6-7% gradient, before a slight plateau of 5% and then the 9%+ slopes on the upper portion. The break is back together once more as the riders pass through 'Beefeater Bend', who has timely painted 'Free Luke Rowe' onto the bend, in support of the Welshman after yesterday's rejection from the race. After a quick test by Mike Woods, Quintana is the man who attacks 7.5km from the summit, leaving Bardet, Lutsenko, Caruso and Woods in his dust. The dispatched-four look at each other and no one initially steps forward to undergo the chase. Romain Bardet finally decides, after a couple of hundred meters, that they cannot afford to let the Colombian go and he begins the chase, aided by Mike Woods. Battered and bruised from crashes throughout this race, Quintana rides with one arm in medical dressing but this does not disrupt his momentum, as he settles down into a rhythm and opens up a 20 second gap. Benoot and Kämna have returned to the Bardet group, in a sign of the reduced pace of the chasers. It is only at a 30 second gap that Bardet and Lutsenko take up the pursuit, but it appears the bird has flown the nest.
On the front of the peloton, Team Ineos are setting the pace, clearly attempting to crack Alaphilippe in the high mountains, following his persistent stubbornness in giving up the lead of the race.
The French masses in attendance are electric as they roar Bardet up the giant mountain and towards the summit, one can only imagine how loud they will be for the Frenchman in yellow in 4 minutes time. Alaphillipe is glued to the back wheel of Thomas, who is being led out by Dylan Van Baarle and Wout Poels. The group are still 5'32" behind the marauding Quintana, who is skyrocketing himself back into the top 5 on virtual GC. As 'Nairoman' enters the final 3km of the climb, he has 58 seconds on Bardet and Lutsenko, who only appear to be losing time. The Colombian is soaring once more at the Tour and showing his form of years past where he has lit up the great mountains such as Alpe d'Huez. It is a joy to watch him climbing with such ease once again and he looks like a man who has been released from the shackles- perhaps in part due to his departure from Movistar being announced in the past two days!
Dylan Van Baarle is perhaps not setting a high enough tempo for Thomas, with rider such as Fabio Aru still a part of the peloton, despite being dropped on the Col d'Izoard earlier in the day. Van Baarle can barely afford to enter the red though, as Egan Bernal is the only rider alongside Thomas and Ineos will not want to waste the wearer of the young rider's jersey in a pace-setting capacity as they approach the summit.
As he rounds a left-hand bend, Quintana's view of the mountains opens up, with Italy in the distance on his right, alongside the Col d'Izoard in the foreground; however, Quintana's eyes will be set on the summit of the Galibier which has just presented itself, at the top of the hairpins that take the riders from the famous Tunnel du Galibier, to the summit at 2,642m. He soon passes the stone monument to Henri Desgrange, which reads, “Dedicated to the glory of Henri Desgrange (1865-1940), former director of L’Auto newspaper, creator of the Tour de France.” It was at this point that the founder of the Tour de France would stand with a stopwatch and time the leading riders who approached the summit. To Desgrange, the Galibier was the greatest Tour climb and it is not hard to see why, with its monstrous size, thin air and jaw-dropping views across France and Italy. Quintana passes the monument and the entrance to the south-side of the tunnel in quick succession, given the monument is placed 150m from the tunnel's exit. The tunnel will mark a tough few minutes to come for the Colombian, with the final kilometre from here being presented in the form of hairpins and an average gradient of 9%, as he looks to reach the summit and swing rightwards down the descent that will see him pass by the monument to Marco Pantani on the northern-face of the mountain. It was the Galibier upon which the Italian wrote one of his most memorable acts of history, as he totally cracked Jan Ullrich in the hail and rain in order to take over 8 minutes back on the German en route to winning the 1998 Tour.
Following the old smugglers' path to the crest of the climb, Quintana gets out of the saddle for the first time on the climb and he dances away to an advantage of over 2 minutes on Bardet and Lutsenko. Even on this most inhospitable mountain, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of Colombians lining the climb and willing him on to the mountain summit scaled by the greats of cycling. These same fans will also be delighted to see Egan Bernal mount an attack back in the peloton, drawing a response from Alejandro Valverde and Enric Mas, who desperately attempts but fails to close the gap on behalf of his teammate and maillot jaune Alaphillipe. The crowd are three men deep on the upper slopes ahead, as they roar on Quintana and imitate a tidal wave as they approach the Colombian on the hairpins to cheer him on to glory. It is a sight to behold and the noise from this mountain must be travelling miles upon miles in either direction. Down in the town of Valloire, there must be a sense of trepidation and excitement as the bubbling noise from the Galibier imitates the roaring of a volcano prior to eruption. As the riders reach and the summit and the lava of Tour de France energy cascades down the mountainside, this small town will not be evacuating from the explosion, they will be opening their hearts and minds to take in the world's greatest bike race, with the hope that their inspired Frenchman in yellow will be seen amongst the leading favourites as they descend into town.
"The Colombian flag flying high and the fans are getting rabid!"
Robbie McEwan looks upon the cathartic scene that is painting yet another tale in the history of the Galibier
Quintana stands up on his pedals in one last act of strength to propel him over the summit, in the knowledge that the remaining 18.8km are all downhill into Valloire. With a gap of 1'44" to Bardet, who has dropped Lutsenko in the final kilometre of the climb, 'Nairoman' looks set to take the stage victory.
Back in the peloton, or in front of the peloton, to be more apt, it is Egan Bernal who has opened a gap of 31 seconds back to the maillot jaune group and the Colombian is enjoying the same high altitude that his national brethren did 5 minutes earlier. The peloton is led into the final kilometre of the climb by Enric Mas, with Alaphillipe still looking comfortable. However, this is the signal that Thomas needs as he passes the tunnel entrance, and he attacks in pursuit of his teammate. Thibaut Pinot is the man to answer the call, whose response puts Alaphillipe out the back, a repeat of the Prat d’Albis climb on stage 15. Despite burying himself to regain contact, Alaphillipe is distanced time and time again, with the acceleration out of the hairpins that are putting him into trouble. Time and time again, despite being distanced, Alaphillipe digs deep and sprints his way onto the back of the favourites group, using the defiance that has served him so well thus far. It is a crucial 700m or so for Alaphillipe until the summit, a defining period that will possibly decide the fate of the maillot jaune for this race. A further attack by Pinot drops the race leader for good, in spite of a couple of French fans who take it upon themselves to harken back to the days of Coppi and Bobet, and physically push Alaphillipe, almost sending him careering off the road. Over the summit, Thomas is caught by Pinot, Landa, Uran, Buchmann and the slightly in arrears Steven Kruijswijk. Behind it is Alaphillipe who is visibly tearing himself inside and out in an attempt to save yellow; he crests the Galibier 16 seconds in arrears after a valiant show of determination in the final 300m of the climb.
As the riders descend down to Valloire, it is Alaphillipe who literally plummets, carrying a death-defying speed that you do not want to watch, for fear of a crash, but equally can't take your eyes off. The enigmatic Frenchman flies into the bends, skirts the edges of the tarmac and somehow makes his way safely out the other side. The viewing is truly breathtaking, in one of the greatest acts of descending you are likely to see. Alaphillipe looks set to catch the Thomas group, with only Egan Bernal up ahead from the GC contenders. But not only does ALaphillipe catch the group of favourites, he remarkably sails down the outside and accelerate past Pinot on the front. 10 metres open up between Pinot and Alaphillipe... 15 metres... 20 metres... 25 metres... the maillot jaune has not only regained contact with his rivals, he has dropped them on the descent.
Amid all the talk of the GC, Quintana has maintained a 1'30" gap over Bardet on the descent and is descending alongside the river heading into Valloire. His fellow Colombian Uran is the man to bridge across to Alaphillipe, with the EF man being a far stronger descender than Pinot and successfully closing the dangerous gap to the maillot jaune. With the GC men back together once more behind Bernal. Bernal's older national compatriot, Nairo Quintana, takes the stage victory and raises his arms out in celebration as he conquers the Alps and the Galibier; it is a truly commanding victory and gives us a glimpse of the very best of this groundbreaking Colombian. Bernal comes home 4'46" later and takes 32 seconds off the group of favourites. Bernal now looks a dangerous prospect and takes the 2nd place on GC, whilst Alaphillipe is looking increasingly like a stubborn foe that Ineos may not be able to shake. It is one of three days ticked off for the maillot jaune and he enters the final two days in the Alps with 1'30" advantage over second-placed Bernal.
Reflections in Valloire
Mesmerising. Daring. Stubborn. Determined. Passionate. Gutsy. Breathtaking. Enthralling. These are all words which not only sum up Alaphillipe's performance on stage 18, but words but that may as well define his Tour de France thus far. Today's stage showed us that Alaphillipe is no longer an outsider to win the Grand Boucle, in fact he may very well have become the favourite. In a day packed with climbing, it was only in the final 500m of the Col du Galibier that the maillot jaune was dropped, after a fantastic ride to bury himself and consistently reengage with the group of favourites, until the elastic was finally snapped by Thibaut Pinot. For days, it has become apparent that Alaphillipe may last right until the end of this race in the lead, and therefore, for days he has been the target of attacks and team tactics. This continued today as Bernal, followed by Thomas and Pinot, all attacked to try and shake off the gutsy Alaphillipe. However, on the descent of the Galibier we arguably saw the return of the man who took yellow in the first place. Rather than watching Alaphillipe digging deep to hold on, we saw him attack and he himself placed the pressure upon his rivals, rather than the other way around. In a show of force that he isn't just prey to the established predators, his jaw dropping descent of the Galibier, which saw him almost extend his lead of the race, must have made the likes of Geraint Thomas think twice. In a day with a 1st Category climb and two hors catégorie climbs, Alaphillipe was only distanced at the very end of proceedings and showed himself to be in the true form of his life. This punchy breakaway and one day rider is following the moves of the world's best climbers, on the world's hardest climbs. His racing is a joy to behold and it is a foregone conclusion by now that the neutral fan at home will be cheering him on to Paris. This is not to say the race result is a foregone conclusion, no, not by a long way. With two tough days in the mountains to come, the time taken by Bernal may prove to be crucial. He has caused some headaches at Ineos after out-climbing his leader in the past few days, and deservedly moving into 2nd place overall. Acting as a backup plan for the French, Thibaut Pinot appears to have carried his Pyrenean form into the Alps and was the man who managed to drop Alaphillipe today with his accelerations. If he replicates his Tourmalet success, it is looking like only the French pair could upset the Ineos applecart. As well as providing some brilliant racing and teeing up a blockbuster conclusion to the Tour, today's stage brought back some incredible memories for myself. Last summer I was lucky enough to go cycling in the Alps and climbed both the Col d'Izoard and the Col du Galibier (both ascents), meaning most of today's stage was played out on roads I have come to know and love. To watch the world's best duel it out on these incredible climbs, it was fantastic and this is one in a number of reasons that set cycling apart from any other sport. I love football, but I will never play at Turf Moor; I love cycling, and I have tackled the same ascents as these sporting heroes. Merci to Henry Desgrange for introducing the most incredible mountains to our hallowed Tour de France, cycling wouldn't be the same without them.
Stage 19: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne – Tignes
Stage winner: Egan Bernal
Yellow Jersey: Egan Bernal
There is no other word to describe today than brutal, simply brutal. Starting in Sain-Jean-de-Maurienne, the day barely sees an inch of descending other than off the mountains of which they have to scale. It is a day with five categorised climbs: Côte de Saint-André (1,165m), Montée d'Aussois (1,467m), Col de la Madeleine (1,746m), Col de l'Iseran (2,770m) and Montée de Tignes (2,089m). With the climb to Tignes serving as a summit finish, the race will be much simpler than yesterday, the task of the GC favourites is to drop Alaphillipe. If they drop him on the final climb, they need 1'30" for another rider to take yellow, the rider in question being Egan Bernal. There will be no descending after the final climb to save Alaphillipe today, the fate of his maillot jaune lay in the legs of the Frenchman and whether he can stick with the favourites to Tignes, or at least avoid losing such a margin.
On the first images we get from the race via these SBS highlights, we see Thibaut Pinot riding alongside the doctor's car on the Montée d'Aussois. Pinot starts the day in 5th overall, but only 1'50" down on Alaphillipe and 20 seconds down on Bernal. Pinot is pointing to his knee and is visibly in pain as they apply a bandage to his left knee, with the injury later being put down to a bang to the handlebars as he climbed out of the saddle. With panic painted across his face, it is a dramatic start to proceedings as his head drops and his shoulders sink, in a heart-wrenching visual that sees him holding his knee, being dropped by the sprinters' group and receiving pats on the back from teammates who carry on without him. After his team car pulls alongside him, he is visibly distraught and stops to tear off his good-for-nothing bandage. The Frenchman is soon over 3 minutes behind the peloton and his greatest ever GC push at the Tour looks in tatters. Despite having a 3rd place finish on his palmarès, he has never climbed as well and after dominating in the Pyrenees and looking comfortable yesterday, he was heading into the final two days as most people's favourite for the race. Never before and possibly never again has he looked so close to winning the Tour. As the peloton crests the climb four minutes ahead, Pinot is shown being consoled by his teammate William Bonnet, as tears fall under his sunglasses and down his stricken face. It is a truly gutting sight and will have many more at home blubbing along with him. After lighting up the Tour so far and providing hope to a nation alongside Alaphillipe, Pinot can hold his head up high with pride as this tragedy unfolds on the roads of France. He puts his arm around Bonnet and his fellow Frenchman provides words of comfort as Pinot steps off the bike for the final time this Tour. He sits down in the car and sobs into his hands, as the French fans scattered across the road journey over to send him off with applause and give their thanks for restoring pride for the French at the Tour. Despite the heartbreaking conclusion, Pinot has graced this Tour with elegance, joy and passion, for that we must be grateful. Chapeau Thibaut, thanks for the memories.
"Maybe it opens it up even more, because I had the feeling that riders like Geraint Thomas were reluctant to attack, in fear of being attacked over the top of by Thibaut Pinot. Now that that is not there, they may become even braver in the finale."
Robbie McEwan assesses the change to the GC race now that the most feared climber has been forced to abandon
The peleton has worked hard on the Montée d'Aussois to limit the gap of the breakaway to under a minute, as a result of the riders up front holding Rigoberto Uran and Alejandro Valverde amongst their mix, who both place within six minutes of Alaphillipe. On the front of the chasing peloton, Jonathan Castroviejo is joined by the ever-reliable Kasper Asgreen. Beginning the Col de l'Iseran, the breakaway only has a 1'13" advantage over the peloton. With the absence of Pinot and time running out to crack Alaphillipe, there may be interest amongst the GC men to launch attacks on the 12.9km climb (7.5% average), despite it falling over 37.5km from the finish line at the summit.
Vulnerability and isolation are the words that come to mind when Enric Mas is dropped from the maillot jaune group with 7km of the Iseran to go, leaving Alaphillipe without teammates ahead, whilst his rivals circle and smell blood. The Iseran is the highest point on this year's Tour and if Alaphillipe is to blow up anywhere in the mountains, one would imagine it to be here. Pictured behind Bernal, Alaphillipe looks visibly in trouble and is making a whole host of facial expressions that tell us one thing, this climb is seriously hurting. In the front group, Vincenzo Nibali is driving the pace, but the maillot jaune group is gaining second after second and only sits 33 seconds back with 6km of the climb remaining. It does not help that some members of the breakaway are not contributing, such as Simon Yates who is permanently sitting on the back.
5.9km from the summit, Geraint Thomas makes the first move amongst the favourites and Bernal leaves it up to the rest to take up the chase. Steven Kruijswijk responds and goes past the defending champion; his altitude training camp prior to the Tour was in Tignes, where the stage finishes today. These accelerations to follow moves put Alaphillipe out the back and he is dropped 5.5km from the top. The GC men are out for the kill now and Bernal mounts a charge, leaving Kruijswijk and co. behind. The elastic has snapped and the Colombian sails away and quickly bridges to Simon Yates. Alaphillipe appears to be pedalling squares as he sees the Tour travelling away from him up the mountain. He will hope to limit the gap to a size he could bridge on the descent, just as he did on the Col du Galibier yesterday. Bernal soon reaches Warren Barguil, who had been leading the race, dragging Nibali, Uran and Yates with him. With 4km to go, Bernal has 40 seconds on Alaphillipe, with McEwan speculating that a 50 second gap on the descent would be bridgeable for the maillot jaune.
Bernal flicks the elbow at the tête de la course, but no one rolls through and the young Colombian prodigy is left to work alone, with his teammate Geraint Thomas 15 seconds in arrears, alongside Steven Kruijswijk. The youngest remaining rider in the race is leading the stage and becoming a real threat to Alaphillipe in yellow. Refusing to crack, however, Alaphillipe is determined to stick to a rhythm and doesn't leak time, instead he loses time steadily to Bernal and bravely forms his resistance.
Into the final two kilometres of the Iseran, Bernal and Yates are now alone out front and the Colombian takes the virtual lead of the Tour de France, having opened up a gap of over 1'30" to the struggling Alaphillipe behind. The white jersey has usurped the maillot jaune, who remains full of battle behind, but without the power in the legs to cooperate. 37 seconds behind Bernal, Thomas is hampered by having a teammate out front and is forced to sit in the wheels of Jumbo Visma as Bernal drops Yates out front as he enters the final kilometre.
"There's no panic, they're banking on Bernal being by himself through the valley road and then they can work together."
Matthew Keenan assesses why Kruijswijk and teammate De Plus are not attacking to bring back Bernal
After fighting hard following being dropped, Yates grinds his way back to within sight of Egan Bernal's wheel, but it is the Ineos rider who takes the 'Souvenir Henri Desgrange' in leading over the highest peak of the Tour de France. He has a 2'03" gap to Alaphillipe and 58" over Thomas' group. The descent will now be vital, as will the valley road, before the riders hit the final climb, Montée de Tignes. Mikel Landa is the first man to take up the chase in the second group on the road, dragging Thomas and Kruijswijk, amongst others, with him. With around a minute to make up on the Thomas group in the descent, Robbie McEwan gives Alaphillipe a chance in closing this gap and by doing so, moving back into the virtual lead of the race. Cresting the climb he is given a bidon by Wanty-Gobert, with the French supporting their effervescent hero.
"We're hearing from out on the course that there is a big storm further out on the course, with floodwater across the road."
Robbie McEwan breaks the news of extreme weather further along the course, with the sky in the distance looking as bleak as Yoann Offredo's hopes of winning the Tour de France (him being the current lantern rouge)
Having put in what must have been a really neat descent, Simon Yates bridges across to Egan Bernal and the pair are together out front, as the commentators break the news of ice and mud on the road ahead, from the glacier. The helicopter images show a snow plough being put to work ahead in an attempt to clear the road before the riders reach the hazard. The road is blocked 5km down from Bernal and word comes from race radio that the race organisation are considering neutralising or stopping the stage. Blissfully unaware, Bernal and Alaphillipe are both putting in tremendous descents, with the Thomas group losing time to Bernal and being reeled in by the maillot jaune.
"They're stopping the stage immediately, coming over race radio. They're taking the time at the summit of the Col de l'Iseran".
McEwan announces to the SBS viewers that the stage is being brought to a halt, with Alaphillipe seemingly losing the maillot jaune
In a frantic set of circumstances, Yates is on his radio behind Bernal, with the Ineos rider maintaining the push on the front in the 'super tuck' position. The first rider to seemingly become aware of the decision is Alaphillipe, who sits up having been informed by the passing police motorbikes. He looks absolutely devastated as he drops his head in defeat, fully aware of what this means for his time in the race lead. Another motorbike pulls alongside Bernal and Yates and signals that they should slow down, to the bemusement of Yates who wants to keep racing. 27.9km from the supposed finish line, Bernal and Yates sit up alongside each other in conversation, both presumably perplexed at what is unfolding. Christian Prudhomme pulls alongside the leading pair, who understandably question why the decision has been made, with the riders out on the road not even requiring rain jackets, in complete contrast to the conditions they were about to ride into. In what must be remarkable viewing to not only us at home, but to the fans on the roadside, the GC group that were contained rivals 10 minutes earlier, now contains chatting colleagues as they sit up and discuss the situation. Landa has his arm around Laurens De Plus, Thomas is in discussion with Emmanuel Buchmann, the Tour has never seen such friendliness 25km from the finish line. Egan Bernal cracks a grin up ahead, presumably having been informed that he is now the leader of the Tour de France.
Meeting up with their team vehicles in Val d'Isère, Egan Bernal chats with Nico Portal before opening another smile and taking his seat in the back of a vehicle. Meanwhile, Geraint Thomas looks slightly frustrated in a discussion with Prudhomme and Alaphillipe is consoled by Enric Mas before being applauded into his team car by the French faithful who have watched him chase the impossible dream this Tour. It is a sad day for the French, with the days of Pinot and Alaphillipe both ending in sympathetic applause from their adoring fans. A happier set of fans are the Egan Bernal Fan Club, who cheer their hero receiving the maillot jaune on the podium.
And so ends the most dramatic stage of the Tour de France in living memory...
"It's a childhood dream come true..."
Egan Bernal manages these special words before breaking down in tears in the interview, overcome with the joy of taking the maillot jaune
Reflections in Tignes
Today's stage turned the Tour on its head, that goes without saying. The man who held the maillot jaune for 14 days is now deposed, in favour of the young Colombian who is incidentally the youngest man remaining in the race. It is a day of sadness, shock, intrigue and about a hundred other emotions. The French challenge has faltered, if not collapsed, as Alaphillipe still places within a minute of Bernal in yellow and there is an argument to say the stage cancellation actually helped him from losing more time on the final climb. Alaphillipe will not see it that way, however, seen as he did not get the chance to actually fight to defend his jersey, it was more removed via a technicality in the end. After days upon days of determined resistance from the chasing GC favourites, Alaphillipe succumbed to a blistering attack from Bernal, but he would have felt confident of regaining time on the descent and in the valley road that led to the final climb, which itself was not particularly long and may have suited 'Loulou' better. Alas, the incredible show of nature's strength removed this possibility and the race organisation must be applauded for taking such a swift decision to safeguard the riders. Despite it removing the final battle from the day, plenty of action had already occurred and a pecking order was beginning to emerge. Perhaps the biggest loser of the day was the defending champion, Geraint Thomas. He could only sit in the wheels of the Jumbo Visma men on the Iseran, given his teammate's attack out front, but it makes sense that De Plus would have dragged Kruijswijk and co. towards Bernal on the valley road, teeing Thomas up for an attack on the final climb, with Thomas showing improved form as the race went on. For now and forever, the 'what if...' question will remain, but the fact of the matter will remain, that Egan Bernal ends stage 19 in the race lead and in pole position to wear yellow into France. The day is prematurely over, but this most thrilling Tour de France still has another chapter to write tomorrow.
Down but not out, Alaphillipe pays thanks to the legions of fans who have willed him across France in the most mesmerising Tour journey of a generation. © Getty Images Sport
Stage 20: Albertville – Val Thorens
Stage winner: Vincenzo Nibali
Yellow Jersey: Egan Bernal
The force of nature was not only limited to affecting yesterday's stage, with the race organisers agreeing on a shortened conclusion to the Tour, Albertville remains the starting point of stage 20 but the day has been reduced to 59.5km. Given that today is the deciding day for the GC, expect teams to bury themselves in order to help their leaders. Egan Bernal has a lead of 45 seconds to 2nd placed Alaphillipe, with Thomas rounding out the current podium at 1'11" behind his teammate. The next two riders will both hold ambition of achieving something special, as Kruijswijk and Buchmann both lay within 1'50" of the Colombian.
It is a lovely moment at the beginning of the stage, as Julian Alaphillipe shakes the hand of his successor in the maillot jaune, Egan Bernal, summing up the class of the Frenchman who has lit this race with fireworks and come within a whisker of achieving the impossible. Whilst today's one and only climb to Val Thorens (2,365m) is only 5.5% average, this will probably not aid the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider, with the summit finish looking prime territory for Team Ineos to maintain a sustained pace to ward off attacks.
Into the final 40km of this truncated stage, the breakaway has a lead approaching 2 minutes and includes riders such as Tony Gallopin, Vincenzo Nibali, Alberto Bettiol, Nelson Oliveira, Mike Woods, Rui Costa and Steve Cummings. Trying to bridge across the gap to the break are Thomas De Gendt and Tim Wellens, with Romain Bardet the KOM jersey holder after stage 18, with a 12 point lead over Wellens. It will be a tough chase for the pair as the breakaway begins the final 33.4km climb with two minutes advantage over the Lotto-Soudal riders and 2'37" over the peloton. Nibali, Ilnur Zakarin and Pierre-Luc Périchon are the first riders to escape the break, with their superior climbing legs shining through. The leading group eventually settles with Tony Gallopin and Mike Woods joining the fray.
Jumbo Visma are operating on the front of the peloton to keep the pace high in order to set up their leader Steven Kruijswijk, who should be confident of taking a podium place should Alaphillipe falter further.
"If I lose everything, I will still be happy because it was really a special Tour de France for me".
Julian Alaphillipe is in modest and grateful mood at the beginning of stage 20
19 days after working on the front to set up the sprint for Dylan Groenewegen, George Bennett puts in one final dig on behalf of Kruijswijk and peels off with 19km of the climb to go. This leaves Laurens De Plus as the last Jumbo Visma rider in front of Kruijswijk, with the team leader hoping to excrete a long shift from De Plus, in order to dispatch Alaphillipe. After only a kilometre or two of De Plus' turn, the breakaway has been brought down to a 1'30" advantage and Alaphillipe has his Jersey fully unzipped in a sign of the uncomfortable caused by the tempo.
"Merci Le Tour" reads a banner with 15km to go... I concur.
Having heard of an acceleration by Marc Soler from the peloton behind, Vincenzo Nibali decides it is time to test the waters and he increases the tempo out front, dropping Pierre-Luc Périchon in the process. Cameras then flash to the back of the peloton, where the former maillot jaune, Julian Alaphillipe, is dropped. With over 13km still to ride, he will struggle to retain his 2nd position overall and Jumbo Visma's job is complete; their next task is putting Egan Bernal under pressure and seeing how Geraint Thomas may react. Alaphillipe is guided by loyal lieutenant Enric Mas, but looks incredibly fatigued, as is it to be expected after weeks of defence of yellow.
The only man inititally to match Nibali in the break is Mike Woods, but with 12.4km to go, the Shark of Messina looks over his shoulder and sees Woods swinging off in exhaustion, the pace of the Italian is too great and he is now a lone attacker at the tête de la course. It is fantastic to see Nibali firing on all cylinders once more, having come into the Tour with too many tough miles in the legs from finishing 2nd at the Giro d'Italia. The Shark is on the hunt once more and there isn't a better time to come good than on the final day in the Alps, with the 2014 Tour de France winner in pursuit of a stage victory. The predicament of Alaphillipe behind will aid Nibali's pursuit, removing the main inspiration for Jumbo Visma's high pace at the front of the peloton. Swinging across the road behind is Alaphillipe, who is rocking and rolling whilst being dropped by his pacesetter Mas. It appears to be one day too many for the Frenchman, with the loss in impetus that is provided by wearing the maillot jaune.
Seeking retribution for yesterday's premature end is Simon Yates, who attacks from the peloton with 6.5km to go. If he wins the stage he will also win the KOM jersey, drawing a reaction from Warren Barguil and Marc Soler, who are two riders desperate for a stage victory. Barguil is in splendid form in the tricolore jersey and with the cracking of Richie Porte behind, has moved into a top 10 placing on the virtual GC. Stage winner into Valloire, Nairo Quintana, is the next to go, ending the spell of Laurens De Plus on the front of the peloton and exposing the maillot jaune group to the work of Team Ineos.
With a measured effort all the way up the climb, Nibali is actually growing the gap back to peloton and looks in sparkling form, with the view of Val Thorens in front, marking his finish point. Despite work being done on the front of the maillot jaune group by teammate Gregor Mühlberger, Emanuel Buchmann is leaving an attack too late and Kruijswijk is clearly satisfied with taking a podium finish into Paris. Mühlberger peels off into the final 2km and Wout Poels is also now beginning his turn, highlighting how in control Team Ineos are. Only upon passing the 800m to go mark does Buchmann launch a pseudo-attack, quickly quashed by Poels. Landa is the next to go, as Nibali enters the final 500m. Landa will be hoping for retribution on Nibali, with the Italian taking the stage victory in the 2017 Giro d'Italia in a two-up sprint with Landa, on the Queen stage that included the Stelvio. At 220m to the line, Nibali takes a look over his shoulder and is willed on by the lack of Mikel Landa in his rear vision, motoring his legs once more and grinding his way up the 9% incline to take the stage victory.
"25 years after Marco Pantani in Val Thorens, Vincenzo Nibali gets his stage win of this Tour de France".
Robbie McEwan highlights the Italian history on this lengthy mountain
Valverde and Landa come home 10 seconds back, and behind them is the Ineos pair of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal, with the Welshman putting an arm around the Colombian's back as they cross the line. "Enjoy it man!" are the celebratory words from Thomas to the maillot jaune; Egan Bernal has won the 2019 Tour de France and becomes the first Colombian to win the Grand Boucle. Crossing the line in defiance over two and a half minutes down on Nibali is Julian Alaphillipe, who remarkably secures a 5th placed finish overall.
"He has not won the Tour de France, but he has won the hearts of all of France, and perhaps a little bit further beyond the borders!"
Matthew Keenan applauds the terrific race from Julian Alaphillipe
Reflections in Val Thorens
Today's stage is typical of many final day finishes of Grand Tours, with the action being rather subdued and anticlimactic amongst the GC men. it is often the case that after remarkable days, such as stage 19, the following day finds it hard to back up, just like at the Giro d'Italia in 2018 after Chris Froome's historic stage 19 success. However, despite the lack of ambition or possibly legs in the favourites group, the day has been delivered entertainment by the Shark of Messina, Vincenzo Nibali. After getting into many breakaways in the Tour's final two weeks, he is finally given the stage victory he deserves. 'Given' perhaps being the wrong words here... not given, his stage victory was learnt, earn through a tremendously measured climb to Val Thorens which kept the maillot jaune group at arms length the whole way up. Repeating the feat of Marco Pantani, a fellow Italian cycling legend, Nibali takes the stage and can take success away from this Tour. It was marvellous to watch the ruthless Italian back to his climbing best and also a joy to watch Alaphillipe's dogged resistance to losing a top 5 placing overall, with the French fans willing him on until their dying breath. One of the day's (and the Tour's) defining images shows a little girl on the shoulders of her father, yelling a cathartic "Allez! Allez!" to the former maillot jaune as he passed by. Her passionate call to arms is emblematic of the way Alaphillipe has inspired the French nation, and of the way the nation of France has responded in cheering their hero to achieve the impossible. Unfortunately it was not to be for Alaphillipe, but to achieve a 5th place overall is still an outstanding achievement for a man simply tipped to be a stage winner. Forgive me for not mentioning the man of the moment as of yet, Egan Bernal, who has delivered upon the hope that Nairo Quintana gave to the nation of Colombia (not forgetting the contributions made by Rigoberto Uran of course). His comfort and ease on the final climb today are a reflection of his climbing prowess that brought him to the fore in last year's race, and has delivered him unbelievable success this year. Becoming the youngest Tour de France winner in 110 years, the 22-year-old is rewarded for brave and effective attacks on stages 18 and 19, with the man from high altitude finding his richest vein of form as the Tour went above 2000m. Debate will rage on over whether or not Bernal would have won the Tour without the premature end to stage 19, as Richard Plugge proved in a recent interview with The Cycling Podcast.
"2019, Bernal won the Tour de France and I believe it was thanks to this landslide. Because otherwise, we would have chased him down in the valley with Laurens De Plus and then, Steven (Kruijswijk) would have attacked with Geraint Thomas in his wheel, and Geraint Thomas would have won the Tour de France. That is what would have happened in my opinion."
Richard Plugge, Managing Director of Jumbo Visma, views Geraint Thomas as the biggest loser of the premature end to stage 19
However, let it not deter you from celebrating the incredible achievement from Bernal who, despite a rough 2020, looks set to be a major player for the decade to come on the grandest stage. To attack with such ease and determination on stages 18 and 19, shows the nature of this champion. The grace of the defending champion must be applauded also, as Thomas was magnanimous in defeat, taking 2nd place into Paris behind his teammate. It is a fine defence of the title from the man who had an interrupted and less-than-ideal buildup to the Tour. Stage 20 provided the conclusion to what has been one of the most remarkable GC races in a generation, pitting the plucky Frenchman against the odds and against the sport's Grand Tour super teams. Despite falling just short in the end, Alaphillipe provided us a David vs Goliath script to a Tou that barely had an unentertaining day. It has been a joy to relive this most remarkable race, chapeau to all who made it one for the history books.
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Stage 21: Rambouillet – Paris Champs Elysées
Stage winner: Caleb Ewan
Yellow Jersey: Egan Bernal
White Jersey: Egan Bernal
Polka Dot Jersey: Romain Bardet
Green Jersey: Peter Sagan
The 21st stage of the 2019 Tour de France, Paris beckons and the Champs Elysées calls for the sprinters looking to win what is commonly known as the 'sprinting world championships'. It will be an interesting watch, given that the ASO have planned the stage to finish in the twilight hour of 9:30pm. Every single jersey has been won prior to the stage and thus the proceedings will roll in a relaxed manner and in celebration of the achievements of the riders, especially the achievements by the youngest rider in the race, who dons the iconic maillot jaune.
As ever, Team Ineos have donned their vehicles and kits in yellow, as the ever-playful Peter Sagan photobombs their celebratory team photo. Egan Bernal feels a couple of generations away from Bradley Wiggins, and yet the British team's spell of dominance rolls on, delivering them their fourth winner of the Tour since being launched in 2010. As has become tradition, the team of the winner of the race leads the peloton onto L'Avenue des Champs Elysées, with 54.6km of the stage to go.
Tom Scully and Jan Tratnik are later the final riders to be caught from the day's break, with the peloton sweeping past, led by the sprinters' teams, with 12.5km of racing to go. The sun is beginning to set and casting a brilliant late afternoon glow onto the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe and the Luxor Obelisk. Inside the final 10km it is game over for Michael Matthews, who suffers a rear-derailleur mechanical and forced to change bikes, putting him out of contention for the stage victory as the peloton roll past Le Seine river.
Hearing the final lap bell at 6.7km to go, the light is fading on the riders, providing ample opportunities for photographers to get the money-shot of Egan Bernal looking resplendent in yellow. Greg Van Avermaet is the man to launch one last attack and he heads into the golden sunset under the Arc de Triomphe, donning his golden helmet and straddling his golden frame in celebration of his Olympic success in Rio. He is travelling at over 40km/h on the drag up the Champs Elysées, but it is not enough as he is soon caught before the roundabout. Panic over for the sprinters and their teams as they head down towards Le Seine and the final 3.5km.
The Deceuninck-Quick Step lead-out boots into operation with 2km to go as the riders swing a left into the tunnel, with Viviani's back wheel being stalked by Peter Sagan. But as the riders exit the tunnel and turn left back towards the Champs Elysées, the blue train appears to have collapsed with leading riders on the radio in a bluster of panic and confusion. In response, it is the reliable Roger Kluge who brings Caleb Ewan to the fore. Julian Alaphillipe is told to swing off the front as a result of the collapse of the Deceuninck train and Viviani is shown on the helicopter footage to be going backwards in the pack. The 'Wolfpack' lead the peloton onto the finishing straight with 350m to go, but their leader is nowhere to be seen. Edvald Boasson Hagen is the first to unleash his sprint with 250m to go, a man who has a dozen top-10 finishes on the Champs Elysées, but it is Max Richeze who looks set to steal the win. That is, until the final 50m, at which point the Australian Caleb Ewan skirts around the back wheel of Niccolò Bonifazio and whilst up against the barriers on the pavement side, takes the stage victory with a clear win over Dylan Groenewegen.
A few seconds in arrears it is Egan Bernal and Geraint Thomas who cross the line together, holding hands and one could say, passing the torch. Bernal is immediately greeted by his family, who are understandably euphoric. It is the same for the rest of the peloton, who are reuniting with staff, friends and family after the line, celebrating what they have achieved. Robbie McEwan said something wonderful earlier, along the lines of, 'nobody loses the Tour, you simply finish at the back, but you have still completed the Tour'. We often overlook just how hard the Grand Tours are, but every single rider who finishes the Tour should be given enormous credit and our applause.
The man receiving possibly the greatest applause, on the podium overlooked by the Arc de Triomphe, is the winner of the combativity prize, the enigmatic Frenchman Julian Alaphillipe. it is a wonderfully deserved reward for keeping us on the edge of our seats for the past three weeks of racing. He is an inspiration and a hero the baying French masses. Chapeau Julian. Fittingly, it is fellow French hero, Bernard Hinault, who greets 'Loulou' on the podium.
Taking a record breaking seventh green jersey is Peter Sagan, who once more nullified the competition and delivered a stage victory for Bora-Hansgrohe. Following him on the podium is Romain Bardet to collect the polka dot jersey, a welcome prize for fighting beyond his poor early-race form which ended another GC push. The young rider's jersey is held by the remarkable Colombian who has also won the maillot jaune, with thousands of Colombians in attendance raining cheers down on Egan Bernal. The young champion delivers his speech with the outline of the Arc de Triomphe visible in the fading sun behind him, it is a splendid end to a most remarkable Tour de France, one I have been lucky enough to relive.
Reflections in Paris
Today's stage was breathtakingly beautiful, with the decision to have a sunset finish paying off. The riders were lit with a golden tinge as they made their way around the Parisian circuit, with Egan Bernal looking the man of the moment, even more so than the maillot jaune usually does. The landmarks of Paris were draped in the golden hour sun, with the Arc de Triomphe, in particular, looking a picture throughout the closing ceremony. With the setting sun in the distance, which had set under the archway earlier in the day, the outline of the Arc was on full display with the orange colour of the fading sky behind. it was quite simply, jaw-dropping. As for the action, well as usual it was a parade until Ineos had led the group onto the Champs for the first time, but this is something that should be celebrated, not brought down. Whilst the debate wages on in regards to the final day of the Giro and the Vuelta, I am in the adamant corner that believes the Tour's final day should remain ceremonial and with a sprint finish. It has become, in my lifetime at least, a traditional closing curtain on the Tour and serves as a prestigious day for the sprinters, a well earned reward following the mountains. Just because the race is only between the sprinters, does not mean it is not a race. This is something I think people often forget. I am as guilty as the next man for expressing boredom at run-of-the-mill flat stages, but it is extremely harsh to remove the 'world championships of sprinting'. Moreover, as 2020 showed, it can often be more than a flat stage ending in a bunch sprint, with the breakaway proving particularly resistant to the oncoming charge, providing a tinge of drama to an otherwise celebratory day. On this day, it was Greg Van Avermaet who attempted to cause an upset and although he fell way short, he looked utterly splendid in the sunset and provided one of the standout images of the Tour. It has been a fantastic way to close proceedings and Ewan must be applauded for a tremendous sprint that saw him come around the riders in front of him, skirt up near the barrier, and storm to stage victory. He is now the best sprinter in the world, having taken three stage victories this Tour.
"I can't believe I just won on the Champs-Élysées, When we rolled onto the Champs-Élysées, I almost had tears in my eyes, it was such a surreal feeling. I can't believe I just won the stage."
© Bettini Photo
Golden hour. © Bettini Photo
Vive le Tour
So it comes to write a farewell to the greatest Tour I have ever watched... from the very first day it was a race filled with the most unbelievable surprises, as Mike Teunissen sprinted to the first maillot jaune, in its 100th year of gracing the sport. Whilst legends opened and closed the race, with Eddy Merckx waving them off in Brussels before Bernard Hinault graced the closing ceremony, it was out on the roads of Belgium and France that new legends were forged and new moments in history were written. Amongst the hills of the Champagne region it was a Frenchman cut from the very finest cloth who burst the race into life, as Alaphillipe unleashed a blistering attack upon one of the most awe inspiring final parcours you're likely to see. Amongst the fields of grapes and estates of splendour, so it was that 'Loulou' announced himself to the 2019 Tour de France, taking a very special maillot jaune in the process.
It was only for a few days that the magnificent yellow was emblazoned atop of the enigmatic Frenchman, as he went down in a blaze of glory on Le Blanche des Belles Filles, usurped by an Italian very much in his mould. In fact, throughout the time spent rewatching this Tour, I struggled to grapple with and articulate what exactly the expectations were of Alaphillipe prior to the Tour, in order to understand how miraculous his eventual performance was; this can all be helped by looking at the man who borrowed his maillot jaune for a few days, Guilio Ciccone. Just like Alaphillipe, Ciccone was a KOM classification winner in a Grand Tour and had won multiple stages at the Giro d'Italia. Alaphillipe had only won one more Grand Tour stage than Ciccone at the beginning of the Tour, with both riders in the mould of a punchy attacker who can get over steep hills and win the occasional stage. But by the end of stage 15, we had seen Julian Alaphillipe climb with the very best in the world on the Col du Tourmalet, extending his advantage in yellow as a result. The magnitude of his performance cannot be understated and through looking back upon it with the lens of Ciccone's expectation for the Tour, one can understand this. Both Ciccone and Alaphillipe held yellow in the 2019 Tour de France, but only one man was the race's finest performer (if not, ultimately, its winner).
Showing signs of life but lacking sparkle on the finish to stage 6 was the young prodigy, Egan Bernal. It was apparent once more what the team leadership looked like as his elder teammate, Geraint Thomas, rode away from the Colombian, asserting himself on the race he entered as defending champion. Experience also shone through at the beginning of the Tour's second chapter, as Thomas De Gendt made his customary mark on the Tour with quite simply, the most incredible ride from a breakaway seen all Tour. This Tour de France was not simply about a fantastic race for the general classification, it was a three-week race scattered with tremendous days of racing, whether they affected the maillot jaune race or not. By chance, De Gendt's monstrous 200km-long victory also coincided with action by the leaders of the race. It was on the Côte de la Jaillière, as the riders approached Saint Étienne, that the French fans caught first glimpse of hope that would carry them through the race with an abundance of joy, before bringing them down with a cascade of tears that could only be matched by stage 19's landslide. It was the hope given to them by the pair of French riders who attacked behind De Gendt, working in unison like it was 1955, to extend an advantage over the chasing pack. Julian Alaphillipe and Thibaut Pinot roared through the hillside surrounding Saint Étienne, in a move that rocketed the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider into yellow once more. The French hope that had laid dormant, if slightly ajar on account of Romain Bardet, since the 1980s, was now beginning to rise once more as the nation was introduced to the two most spellbinding riders in this three-week story of victory and anguish, that would paint itself across the beautiful landscapes of France.
We did not have to lay long before becoming accustomed to the emotions that would be sown by Thibaut Pinot on this race, as stage 10's textbook crosswinds left the Groupama-FDJ rider losing all of the time he had worked so darned hard for on stage 8. Despite risking life and limb to follow Alaphillipe down the descents into the magnificent Saint Étienne, it was poor positioning and perhaps a hint of bad luck that would see him lose valuable time to his rivals. Stage 10 also marked one of the high spots for a rider who exploded onto the Tour de France scene in the opening days with his terrific riding on behalf of his more experienced teammates; it was in Albi that Wout van Aert beat some of the finest sprinters in the world to take a maiden Tour de France stage victory. His Tour ended with a horrific crash on stage 13's time trial, but as we now know, this promising debut Tour de France for the Belgian was simply a prelude for greatness to come in the following year's season.
Watching the Tour from an Australian perspective (via a VPN...) transcended stage 11's bunch sprint finish from a run-of-the-mill affair, to one which was packed full of emotion, as the host broadcasters celebrated the coming of age for Caleb Ewan. His powerful sprint was followed by tears in his interview as realisation began to set in, in one of the Tour's loveliest moments and a moment that hinted at the sprinting dominance to come from the Australian. Back to a British perspective (*waves flag, "Brexit!", etc), stage 12 brought the double joy of the Pyrenees and a British victory, as the Flying Black Pudding (thanks Lionel Birnie) won in the most unexpected manner of a three-up sprint. The SBS folk were an awful lot more subdued today, with the departure of favourite for tomorrow's time trial, Rohan Dennis, from the race.
The joy of seeing the proud Frenchman in the lead of the race had to end sometime, by all common logic, and most expected it would be a close affair in regards to this on stage 13 with the individual time trial on the Pau circuit. Although not a bad time triallist, common knowledge dictated that Alaphillipe could not hold a torch to Geraint Thomas in this discipline, it was just a case of limiting losses to possibly secure one more day in yellow. Julian Alaphillipe, as we know now, does not like following the pre-prepared script, and so it proved on the roads of Pau as he put in the performance of his lifetime to deliver a stage victory on the most unexpected of days (that would be a good name for a documentary about three team leaders who can't get along...). Rather than understandably riding in defence of his maillot jaune, Alaphillipe came out and exonerated his trademark panache and style as he whipped the French fans into a fury in one cathartic moment of joy across the line. He had taken time on the defending champion, in an individual time trial amongst the foothills of the Pyrenees. This was an occurrence nobody had dared imagine prior to him rolling off the start ramp, a scenario going into the final eight days that the French had not even dreamt of. Word was beginning to spread amongst the press pack that 'Loulou' could go very deep into this race wearing yellow, but how deep (?) was the question.
There are two stages from this Tour that I could watch over and over again, one being the Galibier stage that transports me back to better times and days spent climbing in the Alps last year, the other being stage 14's closure to the second chapter of this race. Although only a few were speculating about Alaphillipe's potential after stage 13, following the conclusion of stage 14, France had crowned their new torchbearers and Alaphillipe was touted as the ultimate thorn in the side of Team Ineos. The Col du Tourmalet was the setting for Thibaut Pinot to soar into the azure heavens above, claiming stage victory and the crown of the Tour's most feared climber. Pinot was undoubtedly the king of the Pyrenees and looked on a course to collision with his nation brethren, Alaphillipe. It was Alaphillipe, after all, who had not only taken time on Thomas in the time trial, but also dropped him on the 2000m+ Col du Tourmalet. The stage was an astounding exhibition of French dominance as Alaphillipe came home second behind Pinot, who was clearly overjoyed with emotion and relieved of the pressure that so often falls on his shoulders to ill effect. The French pair had lit up the Tourmalet and the Pyrenees, promising the legions of fans a French Tour winner for the first time in a generation. Whilst Pinot was climbing above and beyond all others in the race, Alaphillipe was in pole position to achieve the impossible. The remarkable story was unfolding and the Alps were all that stood between France and their first home winner since 1985. The Tour had not had such a script since Tommy Voeckler's remarkable spell in yellow in 2011.
Mesmerising. Daring. Stubborn. Determined. Passionate. Gutsy. Breathtaking. Enthralling. That is how I described Alaphillipe's ride on stage 18 over the Col d'Izoard and Col du Galibier. These superlatives probably aren't enough. My words cannot do justice for the performance that showed the astounding defiance of Alaphillipe. Prior to stage 18, things had mostly gone well for the Frenchman, even on the Tourmalet where he dug deep but ultimately had good legs. But it was on stage 18 that we witnessed the true mark of this champion. In almost a mountain-scattered replication of his stage 13 time trial, Alaphillipe turned a day of expected defence and loss, into a day of retaliation and offence. Sliding off the back of the favourites group after riding above and beyond himself all day in these Alpine heights, Alaphillipe buried himself in the final 500m of the Galibier, willed on by the French masses who had roared their maillot jaune up the mountains. After twisting and turning his body this way and that way in a bid to excrete every last ounce of energy in pursuit, he had only a 16 second gap to make up on the descent into Valloire. What followed was not simply the expected bridge to the favourites group, what followed was one of the most astonishing pieces of descending at the Tour in the past decade. Recognising bend by bend where I had descended last year, Alaphillipe plummeted down the valley at a speed I could only dream of. He quickly bridged to the group shortly after passing the Marco Pantani monument on the hillside, before accelerating to the front and giving the royal finger to his rivals by attacking them. Deep into the Tour this most unexpected of race leaders was attacking his foes on an Alpine stage, it was breathtaking and required the urgent work of Rigoberto Uran to reel in the exuberant leader. Uran's fellow Colombian, Nairo Quintana, provided one of the performances of the Tour and a great day of racing for fans of the man affectionately known as 'Nairoman'. He sailed up the mountain in what I gather is a record time from the southern ascent, leaving the stricken Romain Bardet in his wake, to reclaim his pride and standing as one of the best climbers in the world, if not the most consistent in recent years.
Mesmerising. Breathtaking. Enthralling. Certain words used to describe Alaphillipe's performance may as well be used to describe the unprecedented stage 19 which saw a premature end to both the stage and arguably, to Alaphillipe's spell in yellow. Before even mentioning landslides however, we must pay homage to one of this Tour's greatest riders, the man who sparkled in the Pyrenees and brought sheer elation for the French fans, as well as his legions of international followers, of which Include myself. In a gutsy display of bravery, Thibaut Pinot began stage 19, a move he should not even have attempted in hindsight. A knee injury that plagued him with searing pain on the Galibier, proved all too much for Pinot on the lower slopes of the day's first climb, as did the realisations that came with his impending abandonment. For the first time in years, Pinot had looked destined to come close to winning the Tour, with many of the peloton's riders admitting he was the most feared climber coming out of his Pyrenean heroics. Instead, his Tour ended in tears as he emotionally and physically collapsed on the French tarmac. Tragedy was written on the slopes of the Montée d'Aussois and we were all victims, riding on the rollercoaster that is entailed by being a supporter of this remarkable but flawed Frenchman. His vulnerability is what draws us to him, but it is also the seeds of our sorrow as we see Pinot fall before the final hurdle. Despite his Tour ending in such a manner, 2019 will perhaps always be remembered for the time we saw Thibaut Pinot as his most mesmerising best, coming closer than anyone before him in the pursuit of bringing the maillot jaune home in Paris.
The tragedy for the French would not be confined to the withdrawal of Pinot early on in stage 19, it would be extended for the extraordinary circumstances in which Julian Alaphillipe would lose the race lead to Egan Bernal following the Col de l'Iseran. Words upon words have been written and spoken about the premature end to stage 19, so let us bypass the necessities and reflect on the winner of the 106th Tour de France, a man who we have barely mentioned in these closing words. Egan Bernal proved on stages 18 and 19 that he was a deserved winner of the Tour, for me, that is without any doubt. As the Tour rose up the mountains at high altitude, the Colombian soared out from the pack and mounted brave attacks that saw him rewarded with yellow. On the Col du Galibier, it was the Colombian pair of Bernal and Quintana who looked most comfortable, attacking with a controlled elegance that looked mightily efficient. On the following day's highest pass of the Tour, the Iseran, it was Bernal who put in a committed attack and quickly opened up a two minute gap to Alaphillipe, who had been cracked and left alone for the first time in this race. Over both days, it was Bernal's attacks which placed Alaphillipe into trouble and led to his distancing and for all the talk about the Frenchman's descending, on the descent of the Iseran it was Bernal who put in a solid effort to avoid losing any time to Alaphillipe. He went under the radar for the opening two chapters of the Tour, and looked succumbed to team no.2 after his time trial on stage 13, but in the Alps it was Bernal, and not Pinot, who was the king of this mountain range. He mastered the Galibier and the Iseran, before looking comfortable on stage 20's climb to Tignes, proving himself a very worthy winner of the Tour and one I hope to see at his best soon. Despite a rough 2020, look back upon the way he sailed to victory in 2019 and relish in the hope and potential that he showed. It's been a bad year, but let us all hope the Egan Bernal of 2019 shines through once again.
A celebration of the 2019 Tour de France would not be complete without a mention of the stages along the way which provided enthralling action, but are possibly not mentioned enough. Peter Sagan and Elia Viviani both won solitary stages, that were both an impressive showing of their sprinting acumen. Both men had other responsibilities, Sagan with the green jersey and Viviani with working for Alaphillipe, but their talent could not be denied and their stage victories were well earned. Dylan Teuns vanquished Le Blanche des Belles Filles, am achievement reserved for only the best of riders. Daryl Impey and Matteo Trentin delivered stage victories that contributed to Mitchelton-Scott's best ever year at the race, with Trentin's ride in particular being a special performance, having attacked at the foot of the final climb and winning solo in the European Champion's jersey. Their teammate Simon Yates took a second stage victory, conquering the Prat d’Albis in a dominant show of strength. Vincenzo Nibali rose again to his very best and soloed for over 12km to win on stage 20's climb into Tignes. And, of course, we must mention Caleb Ewan's career-making victory on the Champs Elysées to round out this special Tour.
For three weeks of action, the Tour de France delivered excitement, intrigue and the unexpected in abundance, all with the backdrop of the beautiful country that holds the world's biggest bike race. The two things that lift this Tour above the rest are the quality of stages, and the narrative that unfolded following Julian Alaphillipe's stage 3 victory. From his blockbuster attack in the Champagne region, the Tour de France was Loulou's world, and we were all living in it. Exceeding even the greatest expectations of himself and coming within a day of achieving the impossible dream, it was Alaphillipe that created the most remarkable Tour of a generation. His days in yellow will never be forgotten and the 2019 Tour de France will always be, Alaphillipe's Tour. It's been an honour reliving these special memories. Vive le Tour. Merci Julian.
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