Tour de France 2019
But behind the battle for yellow intensified after Bernal, the white jersey and youngest remaining rider in the race, made the first move to break the deadlock in the elite group of favourites, attacking a few kilometres from the summit of the Galibier around 22km from the finish.
Defending champion Thomas, Bernal’s co-leader at Ineos, waited until the steep hairpin bends above the tunnel before putting in his own attack, sparking a frenzy of activity in his wake.
Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) counter-attacked to reel in Thomas and distance his compatriot Alaphilippe while forcing the likes of Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) to show their hands.
But the gutsy Deceuninck-QuickStep rider dug deep to limit his losses over the summit before successfully closing the gap during the long 19km descent to the finish.
At one point, Alaphilippe even rode clear of his rivals in yet another display of the attacking manner in which he has ridden this glorious 106th edition of the Tour.
Parity, however, ensued as Dutchman Kruijswijk led home rivals Alaphilippe, Thomas, Pinot and Buchmann, as well as Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First), Spaniard Mikel Landa (Movistar) and Australia’s Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), in a group 5’18” down on Quintana.
Bernal had latched onto the remnants of a chase group from the break to finish 32 seconds clear of his rivals to leapfrog Ineos teammate Thomas into second place on GC.
Alaphilippe now leads Bernal by 1’30” with two stages in the Alps remaining, with Thomas a further five seconds back in third. Kruijswijk, Pinot and Buchmann retained their places in the top six while Quintana moved up into seventh place above teammate Landa, 3’54” down on the seemingly unmovable Alaphilippe.
Second in the stage by 1’35”, Bardet took consolation by taking over the polka dot jersey from the shoulders of Belgium’s Tim Wellens. The Lotto Soudal rider was in the break – and even pipped the Frenchman over the summit of the Col de Vars – but faded on the second climb of the day, the Col d’Izoard.
Bardet now leads Wellens by 12 points in the KOM standings as the 28-year-old – twice a podium finisher on the Tour – looks to salvage something from the race after falling out of contention in the opening week.
The leaders held an advantage of almost six minutes as they started the Cat.1 Col de Vars. Save for a little foray off the front from Bardet’s teammate Chérel, there was little action on the first of three climbs venturing above two thousand metres.
It was Belgium’s Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) who held off some half-hearted interest from Bardet to pick up the maximum 10 points going over the summit to consolidate his lead in the polka dot jersey classification, with the peloton passing over at 7’30”.
Germany’s Nikias Arndt (Team Sunweb) edged clear of the break on the descent to open up a 25-second gap. Meanwhile, behind, Arndt’s Irish teammate Nico Roche skidded on a corner and hit the deck alongside New Zealand’s George Bennett (Jumbo-Visma) in the middle of the pack.
Bennett would crash again on the final descent into Valloire although the Kiwi managed to finish the stage.
Going onto the day’s second major test, the Cat.HC Col d’Izoard, Greg Van Avermaet (CCC Team) and Julien Bernard (Trek-Segafredo) had zipped clear of the break.
The Belgian Olympic champion faltered ahead of the famous Casse Deserte section of the legendary climb, while Frenchman Bernard was just pipped to the KOM points by Italy’s Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Merida) who edged Bardet in the sprint.
They were part of a nine-man leading group that also included Quintana, Yates, Lutsenko, Woods, Kamna and Serge Pauwels (CCC Team), with a second chase group containing Wellens around a minute back.
Yellow jersey Alaphilippe, meanwhile, dug in and held on in a greatly reduced group of main favourites which came over the summit 5’15” in arrears. Spain’s Marc Soler had set a strong tempo for Movistar teammates Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde, successfully managing to distance the likes of Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and David Gaudu, a key mountain lieutenant to Groupama-FDJ’s Pinot.
In-fighting saw the break reform and then fragment on the long slog up the Col du Lautaret ahead of the official start of the Galibier, at which point an elite quintet of Quintana, Caruso, Bardet, Woods and Lutsenko rode clear.
Woods was the first to attack but his acceleration was instantly belittled by Quintana’s burst, the Colombian finally showing the kind of panache that saw him ride to two second places on the Tour and a flurry of next-big-thing tags all those years back.
Bardet dragged Lutsenko off in pursuit but the lone leader had the best part of two minutes going over the summit and was all but guaranteed a third Tour stage win.
Behind, the main pack had swelled in size after the false-flat to the final climb, with Ineos setting tempo through Spaniard Jonathan Castroviejo and then Dutch duo Wout Poels and Dylan Van Baarle, who had dropped back from the break.
But with Quintana riding what would be an unofficial record ascent of the Galibier, the main pack dropped even further back. It was left to Bernal, who broke the deadlock with an attack 3km from the summit, to spice things up.
In symbolic symmetry, the stage was lit up by Quintana – once tipped to become Colombia’s first Tour winner – and Bernal – the man who could well do just that in three days’ time in Paris.
Bernal underlined his maillot jaune credentials by cresting the summit with 35 seconds over his rivals – and maintaining most of this gap on the descent.
Isolated after Spanish teammate Enric Mas popped, Alaphilippe grimaced as he ground out a tempo, not panicking once dropped on the steep stack of hairpins below the ridgeline summit – although, controversially, he received a push by a QuickStep soigneur when at his lowest ebb.
In typical Alaphlippe style, the Frenchman caught and passed Thomas et al on the descent, only to be called to heel once Uran – protecting his place in the top 10 – organised the chase.
So, besides Bernal’s inroads, it was another stalemate in the battle for yellow, with a spirited Alaphilippe absorbing blows but not bowing out. The dynamic at Ineos, meanwhile, hots up as 22-year-old Bernal showed his climbing legs in momentarily casting Thomas in the shade. With two key stages in the Alps remaining, all is there to ride for.
“We wanted it to be hard but the pace wasn’t there,” Thomas said. “The call was made for Egan to go and hopefully that would kick if off a bit, but it didn’t. That’s when I went as well, just to test. But at least Egan gained some time on everyone else.”
What tomorrow’s Stage 19 from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Tignes lacks in length it makes up for in vertical gain with five categorised climbs on the menu, including the highest point in the race, the 2,770m Col d’Iseran.
With time running out to dislodge Alaphilippe from the race summit, the 126.5km stage could prove a decisive day in the battle for yellow as the Frenchman’s rivals look to put him under pressure before the final, relatively gentle ascent into Tignes.