By Jim Cotton
Many have hailed the 2019 Tour de France one of the greatest in over 30 years, and there’s no contesting that it was the grandest edition in recent memory.
To choose just five key moments of a race as endlessly enthralling as this year's Tour is a tricky task, but someone’s got to do it. So here they are:
Stage eight: The great French hopes, the great Ineos rescue mission
One of the stages that you could re-watch over and over. Thomas De Gendt’s (Lotto-Soudal) epic victory, attacking in the opening kilometres and dropping his three breakaway companions along the savage 200km route through the massif central, is one for the ages.
But the action for the GC men was equally telling. Hot on the heels of the Belgian baroudeur came Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), who finished second and third respectively.
Alaphilippe launched himself clear from the bunch of GC riders on the final climb, with only Pinot able to respond. The pair combined seamlessly in the final 12km to the line, coming home 20 seconds in front of the pack that included their major GC rivals. It was an ominous display of attacking flair and willingness to play aggressively.
Geraint Thomas (Ineos) was lucky to find himself within the large group that came home next after the French duo. Only minutes before the pair vanished over the final climb of the day, the Welshman was brought down when Michael Woods (EF Education First) crashed in front of him.
With just 15km to go and the race about to explode up the road, the situation could have been a disaster. However, the organisation and collective strength that has served the Sky/Ineos team so well over the years came to the fore, as Thomas was paced back to the group by three domestiques with all damage limited.
Thomas admitted after that "it could've been a lot worse for sure. We managed to make the best of the situation.” However sometimes, little moments of freak misfortune such as that sometimes feel a portent of a race where luck isn’t quite on your side. When he rode to the yellow jersey in 2018, Thomas didn’t have a single crash or mechanical. He crashed three times in 2019. Ever get that feeling it’s just not meant to be?
Stage 10: Crosswinds wreak havoc and signal fortunes to come
From the start of stage 10, the peloton was on high alert for dangerous crosswinds in the final. And sure enough, what had been set for a straightforward sprint stage erupted with 35km to go to the finish in Albi.
Ineos and Deceuninck-Quick-Step lit the blue touch paper as the road shifted direction and the winds blew, shattering the race. Riders caught on the wrong side of the ensuing splits had no chance of regaining contact with the powerful and committed lead group.
Thomas, Alaphilippe, Egan Bernal (Ineos), Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and several other GC riders crossed the line with the first group on the road. Several did not however. Pinot, just two stages after striking a mental and physical blow to Ineos through his attack with Alaphilippe in the Massif Central, shipped 1-40. A handful of other contenders lost the same, if not more time, with Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Rigoberto Urán (EF Education First), and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) among them – a deficit they would never come back from.
With the riders that would go on to take the final podium in that front group, it just goes to show that three-week races can be won or lost in a second. Sure, the trio’s 1-40 gain wasn’t the final decisive factor in the overall GC, but it inspired momentum and confidence. And in the context of a race where every marginal gain makes a difference, that’s invaluable.
Stage 13: Alaphilippe pulls off a surprise
From the moment that Alaphilippe took the yellow jersey with his unmatchable move to win stage three in Épernay, we all knew that the longest he’d hold the lead would be until stage 13’s hilly time trial in Pau.
While surviving the gnarly gravel slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles was just about in Alaphilippe’s skill-set, we all knew that he would cede ground to GC rival Thomas, and powerhouses such as team-mate Kasper Asgreen and Wout van Aert (Jumbo-Visma). The Frenchman is a very solid time triallist, but definitely not strong enough to maintain his position at the top of the GC. We all knew it. It was a certainty.
We all ‘knew’ wrong. Thomas, who started the day 1-12 down on Alaphilippe, put in a strong performance – though one he felt wasn’t his best. “I didn’t quite have that last five per cent,” he said after.
Just as Thomas was taking his place in the ‘hot seat’ that is reserved for the provisional leader of the stage, he was out of it again. Alaphilippe, the last man on the course, more or less sprinted up the steep final slope to the finish, crossed the line, pulled a skid, and collapsed by the barriers giggling. He’d taken 14 seconds out of the Brit and extended his lead on GC to 1-26.
We all reassessed. Alaphilippe survived the time trial, despite what we thought we knew. Nevertheless, we knew the next day’s 19km haul up to the summit of the Tourmalet would see him off.
Stage 14: Pinot soars, Thomas stumbles
The first major mountain showdown of the Tour is typically very indicative of the state of everyone’s legs, and their prospects for future success. And it told us a lot.
Pinot outgunned a sextet of talent on the steep final slope of one of the most iconic climbs of the race. “I’ve been angry since the crosswinds…. There was a huge desire for revenge,” he said of his win.
Pinot had been on our list of top contenders for the Tour at the start of the race. He got unlucky in the crosswinds, but did an excellent job limiting his losses in his historical weakness of the time trial. With the passion behind this victory, and the assurance his team showed in delivering him there, France now had two great hopes for their first yellow jersey in 34 years.
That other ‘great hope’ Alaphilippe crossed the line just six seconds behind his countryman Pinot to take second place on the stage. This wasn’t supposed to happen. This wasn’t what we’d thought we knew would happen. After putting the doubting ‘experts’ in their places for two stages in a row, we were starting to wonder…. ‘He can’t… win… can he’?
Meanwhile a, a chink appeared in the armour of the Great British hope, Geraint Thomas. We watched aghast in the final kilometre of the climb as the defending champion swayed at the back of the GC group, the elastic holding him in touch with his rivals worn to a thread. It eventually snapped. That ‘five per cent’ he felt he didn’t have in the previous day’s time trial hadn’t come back.
It initially looked like Thomas could lose well over a minute, but he controlled his effort and mitigated his time loss to Alaphilippe to just 30 seconds. In the grand scheme of things, 30 seconds is nothing. But with his co-leader Bernal finishing just two seconds off Alaphilippe, it suggested both that Thomas may not be the unflappable, unshakable rider of 2018, and that we may need to re-think where the power lies in Ineos.
Stage 19: Storms erupt as Colombia explodes
One of those ‘where were you when?’ stages. You’ll always remember this stage, as much for the action that stopped the race as for the action that was kicking off within it.
Before that action even kicked off however, came one of the saddest sights of the season. Pinot, nursing a leg injury he picked up in an innocuous incident in stage 17, breaks into tears as he soft-pedals in front of his team car, just 35km into the stage. Team-mate Matthieu Ladagnous tries to console him, but Pinot knows one of his best chances of winning the Tour is over. Minutes later he was in the car, being driven to the finish. In that moment, Ineos lost its main major threat, and didn’t have to expend even a single watt doing it.
It felt ironic that after a scorching hot first fortnight of the Tour, the weather turned just as the Tour was reaching a series of unfathomably high climb. Shortly after stage-leaders Bernal and Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) crested the highest summit of the Tour, the 2,751m Col de l’Iseran, race radios started crackling into life.
“Confirmation: the race is over because of hail and pile of rubble in the downhill.”
Hailstones the size of golf balls pummelled the valley into which the Brit and the Colombian were descending, sparking off landslides over the stage’s planned final climb to Tignes. Organisers had no option but to abandon the stage, and GC times were taken at the top of the Iseran.
No official winner was announced for the stage, denying Bernal the recognition of being the first rider to cross the line at which the stage’s time was taken. However, the 22-year-old Colombian had plenty to be happy about a few hours later when he put on the yellow jersey for the first time.
Bernal’s attack midway up the Iseran was an effort that reinforced the form he showed with his unmatchable acceleration on the Galibier the day previously. His move came off the back of a brief attack by Thomas that weakened the suffering yellow jersey wearing Alaphilippe. Bernal delivered the knockout blow to the Frenchman however, and he cracked soon afterwards. Alaphilippe’s 2-07 loss didn’t just mark the end of his reign in yellow, but also proved that his legs were definitively done.
The stage ended three weeks of speculation about who was the head honcho at Ineos. With Thomas confirming he’d support his team-mate in the final mountain stage of the Tour, Colombia was all but nailed on for its first ever yellow jersey.
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