Six stages remain. Six riders are within 2.15mins of taking the yellow jersey onto the Champs Elysees. In what has easily been one of the most open and intriguing races in recent Tour memory, we look at the candidates for overall victory and what it will take for each to succeed.
We love a good stat here at RoadCycling.co.nz and here are a couple of great ones for you. It took until stage 13 of this year’s Tour de France for Julian Alaphilippe to become the first rider to win two stages of the 2019 edition. Every single one of the previous 12 stages had been won by different riders. The last time that happened was in the 1994 race, the year of Big Mig – Miguel Indurain’s – 4th consecutive Tour triumph.
Here’s another more significant statistic. As we head to the final six stages of Le Tour Julian Alaphilippe holds 95 seconds in hand over Geraint Thomas, with Steven Kruijswijk, Thibaut Pinot, Egan Bernal and Emanuel Buchmann all within 2.14mins. Last year only the top four riders were within 2.40mins of Geraint Thomas’ overall lead. While 2017 had seven riders all within 2 minutes with six stages to go, the intensity of this year’s race, the unpredictability and aggressive nature of the race, have combined to make this a sensationally open GC battle. Aside from 2017 you have to go back to 2009 to find a race that was so open after 15 stages.
We gave our reasons for why Julian Alaphilippe would win the 2019 Tour de France, but for the first time this month we saw his fallible side on the slopes of Prat d’Albis. We’re thrilled to see no one team dominating, GC contenders willing to truly take the fight to one another. It’s invigorating, refreshing; and leaves us desperately uncertain about how these next few days will pan out.
Don’t get me wrong, we can be reasonably confident of two things: first, Julian Alaphilippe (barring crashes, sickness or external serious misfortune) will hold yellow by the time the race reaches stage 18. Secondly, he should make it through stage 18 if his condition holds . . . probably. But beyond then the Tour de France is anyone’s guess and we stand a serious chance of seeing huge fireworks from the top 6 in just two monumental mountain stages.
Here are our thoughts as to who could do what in the final countdown to Paris:
Julian Alaphilippe. Deceuninck-Quick Step – 1st
Whatever happens from here, I don’t think there’s any doubt that Julian Alaphilippe will become a grand tour contender in years to come. At just 27 years of age he has time on his side, and after 15 stages of racing – 11 of which have been spent in yellow – he’s certainly not lacking in talent to boot. Stage 15’s time loss was an inexpensive lesson in lead defence; something that will now come under the microscope in the final week to Paris. After all he’s done thus far, to become France’s first Tour champion in 34 years he now needs to ride like a man who knows that it’s up to everyone else to attack him. With a finishing kick like his he is well able to pick up bonus seconds here or there and put a gap between him and his rivals. That now needs to happen in the final 2km if anything; not with 5km to go where it’s still the ball park of the purer climbers.
His ability to lean on his team from here really depends on the compositions of the remaining breakaways. Deceuninck-Quick Step need to keep their powder as dry as possible if they can. That may be easier said than done as they discovered today where the darling of France was left largely isolated when it mattered most.
Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal. Team Ineos – 2nd at 1.35mins & 5th at 2.02mins
And to think the problem of Team Ineos’ leadership was almost sorted after the time trial! Team Ineos are in a great position to strike and win the Tour de France, they just need to do it! In order for that to happen Bernal needs to work for Thomas or vice versa, they simply cannot and must not be left to their own devices. But at this stage it really looks like that’s exactly what’s happening. If they continue to ride their own races – which is what looks to be unfolding – we could well end up with two disappointed Ineos riders flanking the victorious maillot jaune on the Champs Elysees. For all intents and purposes that would be a bitter disappointment given that Team Ineos are still the strongest team in the Tour in my opinion.
Regardless of who takes the lead – and I really hope one of them does – Wout Poels could well be the key to their success. He’s misfired so far, been off the pace in key moments but we saw him close to his brilliant best in stage 15; and he was crucial in the isolation of Alaphilippe. Ineos need more of the same from him, and if they get it in stages 19 and 20 that might be enough to make it 7 Tour wins from the last 8.
Steven Kruijswijk. Jumbo-Visma – 3rd at 1.47mins
We said that the stage 10 incident, while unquestionably a tactical blunder, could be something they might get away with; and so far they’ve more than exceeded themselves in the high mountains! After a little hiccup in stage 6, Steven Kruijswijk has produced an excellent display of defensive riding with a team who have really risen to the occasion around him.
George Bennett has been excellent . . . . consistently. That has been the major key for George and the likes of Laurens De Plus. It’s not been flash-in-the-pan excellence followed by fatigue, they’ve continuously stepped up. What we did notice was that in stage 15 the script didn’t read particularly well for them, and Jumbo-Visma had to go to the front earlier than they might have liked; due to the composition of the breakaway and time gains potentially being made. This meant that George dropped off with a good amount of climbing on the Prat d’Albis still to come. Again they got away with it, Kruijswijk even had a dig himself, and he was able to keep pace with Thomas at the last.
Without doubt Steven Kruijswijk can be on the podium, and if he makes it Jumbo-Visma can and should rejoice.
Thibaut Pinot. Groupama-FDJ – 4th at 1.50mins
This is the one that everyone above him in the GC should be afraid of. Thibaut Pinot has been colossal in the high mountains, absolutely superb and he’s barely put a foot wrong. The only question is around whether it can last. With David Gaudu and Sebastien Reichenbach he’s got two great lieutenants who’ve managed not only to keep him in with the GC big names; but they’ve put those GC big names against the ropes.
What’s impressed me most about Pinot has been his execution. On a mountain stage, as in a sprint, timing is everything, and while others have attacked only to crack later; Pinot hasn’t. He rides like a man well aware of himself, his abilities and his limitations. There is a maturity coupled with a fiery aggression in his climbing that so far no one else has really been able to deal with.
As far as Pinot is concerned he must surely be looking at the iron being red hot, but can he grab it? He needs at least one more day like stage 15, where he put an impressive 1.16mins into Alaphilippe.
Emanuel Buchmann. BORA-Hansgrohe – 6th at 2.14mins
The best hope for a German podium in the Tour de France since Andreas Klöden back in 2006. Emanuel Buchmann, like Julian Alaphilippe, carries the hopes of a nation on his shoulders. I don’t think he’s got enough to win, but he has been the silent assassin of the general classification. If only BORA-Hansgrohe had the team to back him.
That’s his major achilles heel so far, the lack of a team around him. I’d love to have seen the effect that a Rafal Majka might have had on Buchmann’s GC campaign, but so far he’s been a bit Sagan-esque; showing that with or without a team he can get a good result. He needs to avoid instigating moves going forward, and rely on his ability to follow the big names like Pinot today. If he can do that he will move closer to the top three.
He’s done a really good and efficient job of flying under the radar. He will need to be similarly unnoticed but equally deadly from here.