Yates wins stage 15 as Alaphilippe clings to yellow – Tour de France

Tour de France 2019

Stage 15

The first cracks in Julian Alaphilippe’s yellow armour appeared in a scintillating and sodden Stage 15 to Foix Prat d’Albis as the Frenchman limited his losses to retain the race lead after Britain’s Simon Yates held off a late surge by the irrepressible Thibaut Pinot to take his second win of the Tour de France.

Yates, of Mitchelton-Scott, was the last man standing of a large 36-man break to win an enthralling 185km stage from Limoux to Prat d’Albis, a new climb in the Tour towering above the town of Foix in the foothills of the Pyrenees.

But all the action played out behind when Frenchman Pinot of Groupama-FDJ built on his triumph on the Tourmalet by putting in a series of stinging attacks to drop his rivals as the rain bucketed down on the fourth and final climb of the day.

Compatriot Alaphilippe, who found himself isolated without any teammates from Deceuninck-QuickStep, was able to respond to Pinot’s preliminary attacks – and at one point even dropped his big rival Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos).

But the defending champion Thomas kept his cool and, with the help of Dutch teammate Wout Poels, was able to reel in – and then drop – the man in yellow.

Yates held on to win the stage by 33 seconds ahead of Pinot, who took second place ahead of Spain’s Mikel Landa (Movistar), who had attacked the main pack on the penultimate climb.

Germany’s Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Colombia’s Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) completed the top five after coming home 51 seconds down, once again Thomas’s teammate caught in two minds as to whether he should ride for himself or for the Welshman.

Thomas led home Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and Spanish world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) in a trio 1’22” down after piling on the pressure on Alaphilippe, who conceded 27 seconds at the line.

“It’s kind of a difficult one, tactics-wise, because I wanted to go,” Thomas admitted. “I had the legs to go but I wasn’t going to chase down Egan with the guys in the wheel.”

Alaphilippe enters Monday’s second rest day with a reduced lead of 1’35” over Thomas in the general classification ahead of an historic eleventh day in yellow.

But all eyes will be on the impressive Pinot, whose resurgence continued as he rose to fourth place at 1’50” just three seconds behind Kruijswijk, and ahead of Bernal, the white jersey, who drops to fifth ahead of Buchmann. Landa’s rousing ride saw the Spaniard move back into the top 10 to seventh, one place ahead of teammate Valverde.

The peloton during stage 15 of the 106th edition of the Tour de France.

“It’s one more day in yellow, I’m happy,” said Alaphilippe. “It was my goal to keep the yellow. I’m really happy I still have it for the rest day and the next stage, but it will be a really hard last week. I just want to enjoy it.”

Victory to Yates – a third for Mitchelton-Scott in the 106th edition of the Tour – came at some cost, however, after the 26-year-old’s twin brother Adam endured another torrid day in the saddle, coming home almost 25 minutes down on his sibling to all but end his chances of a top 10 finish.

And despite some early promise by faltering giants Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale) in the break, the two riders – both previous runners-up in Paris – ended the day bickering at each other in a quartet that came home almost three minutes down alongside Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First).

The plight of Alaphilippe’s QuickStep teammate Enric Mas was even worse, the former white jersey dropped on the second climb of the day en route to losing more than half an hour while plummeting out of the top 20.

All of Deceuninck-QuickStep’s yellow eggs will now be in Julian Alaphilippe’s basket – but will it be strong enough to stop the shells from cracking? Tuesday’s Stage 16 to and from Nimes will offer another day’s respite, but Thomas, Pinot, Kruijswijk et al will continue chipping away once the race hits the Alps on Thursday ahead of three decisive days in the high mountains.

A fast and frenetic start to a challenging day in the foothills of the Pyrenees saw the peloton cover 49km in the opening hour without a break managing to form.

Fallen general classification stars in the vein of Simon Yates, Vincenzo Nibali and Romain Bardet were all particularly active, along the with classic stage hunters in the mould of Thomas De Gendt, Jesus Herrada and Andrey Lutsenko. With the intermediate sprint coming in the valley after the first categorised climb, even the green jersey Peter Sagan tried his luck.

Eventually, a move stuck following an attack by Nibali’s Bahrain Merida teammate Damiano Caruso, who soloed clear at the start of the Cat.2 Col de Montsegur.

The 28-man move which subsequently formed was a motley crew of big-name riders recalibrating their race ambitions after invariable losses in the crosswinds, time trials or the Tourmalet – or, in the case of Bardet, all three.

The Frenchman was there with Ag2R-La Mondiale teammate Tony Gallopin, while Nibali was joined by teammates Caruso and Jan Tratnik. Astana had three riders present in Pello Bilbao, Omar Fraile and Lutsenko, while Britain’s Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was in the mix – on the hunt for a second stage win of the race having helped pace his brother Adam during his Tourmalet torment.

With Trek-Segafredo duo Bauke Mollema and Giulio Ciccone present, along with Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), his cousin Nicolas Roche (Sunweb), Austrian champion Patrick Konrad (Bora-Hansgrohe) and Ilnur Zakarin of Katusha-Alpecin, it was a classy break full of potential winners.

Geraint Thomas’ title defence remains alive after today’s events.

Besides two Groupama-FDJ teammates of Saturday’s winner Thibaut Pinot – Rudy Molard and Swiss champion Sébastien Reichenbach – the most intriguing presence in the break was the Colombian Nairo Quintana. Having blown a gasket in the last 10km on the Tournalet, the double Tour runner-up inveigled himself into the move alongside the two Movistar teammates whose hefty tempo in Stage 14 proved his demise – Andrey Amador and Marc Soler.

It was Canada’s Michael Woods (EF Education First) who beat Bardet and Nibali to the KOM points over the summit of the climb before a chase group of eight riders successfully managed to join the leaders on the descent as the break swelled to 36 riders.

Behind, the peloton was being led by the entire Deceuninck-QuickStep team of the yellow jersey Alaphilippe, with the Ineos team of his rivals Thomas and Bernal tucked in behind – two of the three teams not represented in the break.

The third team to miss the move – quite unexpectedly given their attacking nous to date on the race – was Lotto Soudal, whose polka dot jersey Tim Wellens had been distanced ahead of the first climb. The Wellens gruppetto, however, managed to rejoin the main pack on the descent to the Rhone valley ahead of the intermediate sprint.

Michael Matthews of Team Sunweb – who was in that eight-man chase group which joined the leaders on the descent – won the intermediate sprint to move back into provisional third place in the green jersey standings, with the pack passing through just over two minutes in arrears.

There was a momentary split in the break after nine riders tried their luck on a rise following the split, but the race settled soon after as the gap stretched out to 3’30” ahead of the first of three successive Cat.1 climbs, the tough Port de Lers, with 75km remaining.

The break split up and largely reformed on the 10km climb with Quintana feeling the pinch before rallying to rejoin the leaders before the summit, which Bardet crested in pole position as the pack – which had caught the struggling Nibali – trailed by 5’15”.

The gap was down to four minutes before the next climb thanks to some hefty chasing from Alaphilippe’s QuickStep team, who could still call on the services of sprinter Elia Viviani even if the former white jersey Enric Mas had collapsed on the Port de Lers and rode in a fresh gruppetto more than 10 minutes off the pace.

After the preamble of the Col de Port, the 3km Mur de Peguere was greeted with an attack from Simon Geschke (CCC Team) who zipped clear of the break ahead of the steepest part of the climb, drawing out a counter attack from Yates behind.

And while one Yates was on the offensive, the other – Adam, who dropped out of the top 10 after a tricky day on the Tourmalet – was distanced by his former GC rivals for a successive day.

Geschke held on to take the KOM points over the misty summit just before Yates latched on. Behind, the first move from the yellow jersey group came from Landa, who zipped clear with Denmark’s Jakob Fuglsang (Astana).

Julian Alaphilippe rests after today’s challenging stage.

Fuglsang did not last long, but Landa soon opened up a gap and managed to pick up Movistar teammates Soler and Amador from the break. With Quintana further up the road in a four-man chase group with Bardet, Reichenbach and Lutsenko, Movistar looked to be in a solid position.

The main pack trailed the leaders by just under three minutes as the race passed through Foix and started the Tour’s first ever ascent of the Cat.1 Prat d’Albis, a sinuous, narrow 12km climb with some steep ramps and an average gradient of 6.95.

With Landa making in-roads behind, Yates did not waste any time, the compact climber dancing clear of Geschke in pursuit of a second win in four days following his earlier Stage 12 triumph at Bagneres-de-Bigorre.

The rain started to fall in torrents – but behind, nothing dampened Pinot’s party. After yet more teeing up duties from the promising David Gaudu, Pinot made his move with 6km remaining and soon latched on to the chase group featuring his teammate Reichenbach.

With Thomas, Porte and Kruijswijk distanced, Alaphilippe rallied and latched on to the wheels of Bernal and Buchmann. But a kilometre later, the elastic snapped and the inevitable happened: Alaphilippe was definitively dropped for the first time in this Tour.

After another series of surges, Pinot left Buchmann and Bernal as he continued his pursuit of Landa, who he caught after passing German escapee Lennard Kamna (Team Sunweb) inside the final 2km.

Alaphilippe was soon back alongside Thomas in the main chase group, but had no answer when the Welshman finally managed to swat the fly who had been getting the better of him since the first Pyrenean stage on Thursday.

Up ahead, Yates knew the win was his and slowed to savour the occasion as the rain lashed down, the Briton notching his fourth win of the season – consolation in sorts after missing out on a high finish in the Giro earlier in May.

Pinot drove all the way to the line to maximise his gains with the six-second time bonus for second place – rising to fourth place in the standings but still no doubt ruing the 1’40” he lost in the crosswinds in Stage 10 to Albi.

For without those losses, Pinot would be 10 seconds down on his compatriot Alaphilippe and very much in the driving seat for the yellow jersey. But judging by his form in the Pyrenees, the 29-year-old will not have given up yet on him – not the current man in yellow – becoming France’s first Tour winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

After Monday’s rest day, the race resumes with the 177km Stage 16, a slightly rolling ride through the Gard which starts and finishes in Nimes and could well reopen the door to some of the remaining sprinters.

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