Alaphilippe defies the odds once more
And so the story continues. Once more Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) defied expectations to survive the Tourmalet, producing the best climbing performance of his career to finish second on the stage, and once again extended his lead in the overall classification.
This feels like the day that Alaphippe evolved from unlikely outsider to the genuine overall favourite. He’s now proven he can compete with the best on every kind of terrain. One by one some of the major pre-race favourites were dropped on the Tourmalet, but Alaphilippe hung on in there, and had enough left in the tank to sprint for second place.
His rivals now need to think up ways that they can make up the several minutes needed to depose him from the top. It’s a big ask, but there are still potential vulnerabilities to exploit.
For one thing, his Deceuninck-Quick-Step team is not built to defend the yellow jersey. Aside from Enric Mas, they don’t have any top climbers for the mountains, meaning that the likes of Ineos and Jumbo-Visma should be able to isolate him.
That could cause Deceuninck-Quick-Step serious problems in the mountain stages to come, especially those - like tomorrow’s stage - that feature several more difficult climbs before the final summit finish.
At this rate, however, Alaphilippe looks capable of overcoming whatever obstacle comes his way. Excitement in France will be reaching fever pitch.
Thibaut Pinot with redemptive win
What a day it was for French cycling. Not only did Julian Alaphilippe reach the summit of the Tourmalet still in the yellow jersey, fans also had a stage win to celebrate courtesy of Thibaut Pinot’s exceptional ride.
This was a huge moment for Pinot, who has had a complicated relationship with the Tour. After breaking on to the scene with a stage win on debut in 2012 and a podium finish in 2014, he failed to make the next step, faltering in 2015 after a series of crashes and abandoning altogether in both the following two editions.
As a sign of his growing disillusionment with the Tour, in the last few years he’s prioritised the Giro d’Italia instead, finishing fourth in 2017 and nearly making the podium last year before falling ill in the final few days.
But, to the delight of French fans, he’s returned with a bang this year and looked as good as he ever has done to win today’s stage.
The win was set up by some fine work from Groupama-FDJ, who set a high pace early in the day to ensure that the breakaway (which included a Vincenzo Nibali who was certainly in the mood) would not survive, and thinned out the lead group on the Tourmalet with an exceptional turn from youngster David Gaudu.
On the form he’s on, this won’t be the last we see of Pinot at the race. Now up to sixth on GC at 3-12, a podium finish looks well within his grasp - and perhaps even the yellow jersey.
Geraint Thomas dropped as Ineos situation complicated
Perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was seeing the seemingly unflappable Geraint Thomas (Ineos) dropped towards the summit of the Tourmalet.
The time loss sustained wasn’t huge, with the defending champion coming in at 36 seconds behind Pinot, and thereby maintaining his second place ranking in the overall. But it was a display of vulnerability that the Welshman simply didn’t show throughout the entire 2018 race.
Team Ineos didn’t seem their usual selves either, with first Movistar and then Jumbo-Visma outnumbering them on the climb, and disrupting their familiar train by setting the pace themselves.
They might also be facing a tactical dilemma. In yesterday’s Talking Points we declared, following their respective time trial performances, that "any lingering doubts about whether [Thomas] is still sharing leadership duties with Egan Bernal were...put to bed" - but that does not seem to be the case. When Thomas was dropped, Bernal was still able to follow the pace of the leaders, and was not instructed to come back and help Thomas.
With Bernal (at 3-00) less than one minute adrift of Thomas (at 2-02) on GC, Ineos will continue to play the co-leadership card for now. The matter of winning the Tour de France today became far more complicated than the team is used to, but with two quality riders still so well-placed on GC, they remain in a good position.
The GC takes shape
Today we learned decisively which riders are capable of winning the Tour de France and challenging for the podium, and which riders are not.
Any lingering hope Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) might have had about staging a comeback were dashed when he was dropped on the penultimate climb of the Col du Soulor, where, more surprisingly, Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) was also dropped. He managed to come back to the main group with the help of brother Simon and Jack Haig, but he was dropped again early on the Tourmalet and never recovered.
The Tourmalet then put an end to several more contenders’ chances. Dan Martin (UAE Emirates), Nairo Quintana (Movistar) were both distanced early, despite having shown decent form earlier in the race, and later Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and Enric Mas (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) fell prey to the vicious pace set by David Guadu.
At the top, an elite group of five sprinted for the victory, all of whom make up the top six on GC alongside Geraint Thomas. They were: stage winner Thibaut Pinot, yellow jersey Julian Alaphilippe, Thomas’ team-mate Egan Bernal, Jumbo-Visma’s latest top performer Steven Kruijswijk, and stealthy underdog Emmanul Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe).
Alaphilippe holds a sizeable lead of 2-02 over Thomas, but the rest of these riders lie within just 1-10 of Thomas’ time. With over a week left to race, any one of these riders could still plausibly win the yellow jersey. Everyone else, however, can probably be counted out.
What were Movistar playing at?
We had been giving Movistar the benefit of the doubt given their tactical masterclass in winning the Giro d’Italia this season, but they got today’s stage, horribly, horribly wrong.
The team had looked to be setting up a big attack by piling at the front of the peloton with a whole load of quality climbing domestiques up both the Col du Soulor and the lower slopes of the Tourmalet, but, oddly, their supposed leader Nairo Quintana was drifting around the back of the peloton on the latter climb.
Was he bluffing? Apparently not, as he was dropped altogether 10km from the top, under the pace of his own team-mates. To add to the farce, Marc Soler - the rider who had just dropped him - then himself dropped back to help pace Quintana up the climb.
Perhaps Movistar knew Quintana was on a bad day, and instead were riding for an Alejandro Valverde GC bid or Mikel Landa stage win? If either of these were the plan, then that too failed spectacularly, with Valverde losing time after being dropped, and Landa failing to make an attack before finishing a forgettable sixth place.
At the finish Valverde explained why Movistar continued to set the pace by claiming that Quintana said nothing about being on a bad day. Yet surely the team must have grown concerned when they saw their leader struggling at the back for no apparent reason, even if he did remain silent?
Whatever happened, it was a disaster for Movistar, and featuring a worrying lack of communication or cohesion for a team that had hoped to push for the yellow jersey.
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