Tour de France 2019
Bolstered by the sight of Thomas – the man he beat in Friday’s time trial in Pau – hitting the wall before the final set of hairpins, Alaphilippe once again proved his doubters wrong by putting in a staggering performance in the maillot jaune, the Deceuninck-QuickStep livewire surging clear of Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) to take second place and an extra six bonus seconds.
Alaphilippe now leads Thomas by 2’02” in the general classification after his rival came home 36 seconds down for eighth place. Third place for Kruijswijk saw the dependable Dutchman cut his deficit to Thomas to just 12 seconds as the GC battle intensified at high altitude.
The top five on the day was completed by Germany’s Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Thomas’s teammate Egan Bernal, the highest placed Colombian on the South American nation’s Independence Day.
Bernal was clearly caught in two minds after his co-leader was dropped in the final kilometre, but rose one place to fourth, three minutes down, and wrested the white jersey off the shoulders of Enric Mas after Alaphilippe’s Spanish teammate popped on the first of seven peaks that rise above two thousand metres in this year’s Tour.
Despite the mountainous parcours, it was a day to forget for Colombia’s Nairo Quintana (Movistar) who was pedalling squares with 10km remaining to plummet out of the top 10 after shipping almost three and a half minutes.
Britain’s Adam Yates, too, struggled in the Pyrenean heat, the Mitchelton-Scott rider fighting back after being dropped on the Col du Soulor, but ultimately conceding the best part of seven minutes to drop to 18th place on GC.
But nothing compared to the physical and psychological battering endured by Frenchman Romain Bardet of Ag2R-La Mondiale after the 2016 runner-up was distanced on the penultimate climb and came home over 20 minutes behind his compatriot, Pinot.
For Pinot, it was arguably the best of his three Tour stage wins to date, the 29-year-old adding the Tourmalet to his previous victories at Porrentruy in 2012 and Alpe d’Huez in 2015.
Having conceded time in the crosswinds on Monday’s Stage 10 to Albi, Pinot has got his race back on track after a strong showing against the clock in Pau and, now, on the Tourmalet, rising to sixth place at 3’12”.
And yet all eyes remain on the man of the moment, Julian Alaphilippe, who emulated compatriot Thomas Voeckler in securing a tenth day in yellow on the day French president Emmanuel Macron visited the Tour and was rewarded with a famous one-two.
After a delayed start – owing to a demonstration which cut the stage length by 7.5km – there was movement from the gun as Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain Merida) rode clear with Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Nibali, the 2014 champion who entered the stage almost 30 minutes down in the standings following his exertions in the Giro, dropped his former teammate Sagan on the first of three categorised climbs, the Cat.4 Cote de Labatmale.
Once over the top, Nibali decided to sit up and wait for Sagan, the duo slowing their pace to allow a chase group of 15 riders to bridge over: Alexis Vuillermoz (Ag2R-La Mondiale), Matej Mohoric (Bahrain-Merida), Matthieu Ladagnous (Groupama-FDJ), Carlos Verona (Movistar), Luis Leon Sanchez (Astana), Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates), Lennard Kämna (Sunweb), Tim Wellens(Lotto-Soudal), Lilian Calmejane, Romain Sicard and Rein Taaramëe (Total Direct Energie), Ilnur Zakarin and Marco Haller (Katusha-Alpecin), Guillaume Martin (Wanty-Groupe Gobert) and Elie Gesbert (Arkéa-Samsic).
With the Groupama-FDJ team of Thibaut Pinot leading the chase, the gap never grew much more than three minutes ahead of the first major test, the Cat.1 Col du Soulor.
But it was not Pinot’s men in white, red and blue who did the damage in the pack, but Movistar duo Marc Soler and Andre Amador, who surged to the front to dictate a ferocious tempo which blew the peloton to smithereens.
With the likes of Thomas De Gendt (Lotto Soudal) and Sergio Henao (UAE Team Emirates) already dropped before the climb, it was the turn of Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale) and Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) to hit the wall.
While Britain’s Yates was able to fight back on with the help from his twin brother Simon, the Stage 12 winner and reigning Vuelta champion, Bardet, the 2016 Tour runner-up, was dropped without a trace, the Frenchman’s poor form continuing after his wretched performance in the Pau time trial.
Bardet would eventually crest the top of the climb more than three minutes down after the relentless pace set by Movistar succeeded in reeling in half the break while disposing of most the peloton.
It was Wellens who darted clear of Nibali to take the maximum points over the summit of the Soulor to consolidate his lead in the polka dot jersey standings, the two riders soon caught by Gesbert on the descent, but with their advantage dropping to just a minute.
After the long descent came the intermediate sprint for which Sagan, by now caught by the pack, was given momentary reprieve by the Movistar train to ride clear and take the points for ninth place.
Ahead nine riders – Calmejane, Gesbert, Sicard, Wellens, Nibali, Zakarin, Kamna and Sanchez – led the race with a 45-second gap going through the feedzone.
It was the French trio of Sicard, Calmejane and Gesbert who refused to give in when the rest of the break sat up, Sicard soloing clear with his two compatriots in pursuit. Gesbert, best known for being the rider Italy’s Gianni Moscon punched last year en route to be kicked off the race, ultimately proved the strongest, but was caught with just over 10km remaining.
Movistar continued to set a hefty tempo through Marc Soler, Andre Amador and, once back from the break, Carlos Verona – although they soon shot themselves in the foot when Quintana because one of the casualties of the high pace.
The Colombian’s day went south, following the plight of UAE Team Emirates duo Dan Martin and Fabio Aru, who were also distanced following the second despatching of Yates.
Although Groupama-FDJ had done much of the donkey work on the Soulor, it was the French national champion Warren Barguil, from minnows Arkea-Samsic, who first tested his legs with an attack with 9.5km to go.
Gaudu soon pulled his man Pinot to the front as they increased the pace and pulled back Barguil, just as the likes of Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Mas started going backwards.
Finally, Ineos showed their hands and moved their men Thomas and Bernal up after some preparatory pacing from Dutch duo Wout Poels and Dylan Van Baarle. But, still, the yellow jersey of Alaphilippe hung on – sticking to Thomas’s wheel as if his life depended on it.
Gaudu put in an attack with 4km remaining but was reeled in after Kruijswijk’s Jumbo-Visma teammates George Bennett and Laurens De Plus came to the fore.
Barguil was soon dropped along with Colombia’s Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) and Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsanfg (Astana) as the pack was whittled down to fewer than 10 riders.
After Bennett neutralised a move by Pinot and Mikel Landa (Movistar), Buchmann tested his legs approaching the flamme rouge. It was this acceleration which ended the hopes of Thomas, who slipped back to leave his teammate Bernal with a bit of a conundrum alongside Alaphilippe, Pinot, Buchmann, Landa and Kruijswijk.
In the end, Bernal’s decision was made for him after Pinot put in a surge and all those who could were forced to reply. But it proved too much, and Pinot took the spoils ahead of the indefatigable Alaphlippe and impressive Kruijswijk.
Quite how far Alaphilippe can go in yellow is anyone’s guess – but, for now, he’s looking every much the champion elect.
The climbing continues on Sunday with a challenging 185km stage from Limoux to Foix which tackles the foothills of the Pyrenees before concluding on a new climb that rises above the town of Foix.
With bonus seconds available over the penultimate climb, the steep Mur de Peguere, Alaphilippe may be tempted to heap more misery on his rivals – and yet the ramped finale of Prat d’Albis is very much a climb which suits his characteristics.