Extraordinary drama as race is cancelled
Just when you thought that this year’s remarkable Tour de France couldn’t produce more drama, and this happens.
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As the riders were tearing down the long descent, the live TV coverage of the race cut to shots of snow ploughs clearing the road. We later learned that these images were of further along the route, where a sudden snowstorm and landslides had made the road to the top of the final climb impassable, forcing the organisers to cancel the rest of the stage in accordance with the extreme weather protocol.
Confusion reigned on the road, with many riders waving their arms in emotional states varying from frustration and anger to bafflement, upon being informed via race radio of the organisers’ decision.
In racing terms, it was some anti-climax to what had already been a thrilling stage, but for sheer unexpected drama, this will be remembered and talked about for years.
Egan Bernal takes yellow
The decision to take the times of the riders at the summit of the Col de l’Iseran means that Egan Bernal (Ineos) takes the yellow jersey from Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step).
Following an attack from team-mate Geraint Thomas that put Alaphilippe into difficulty, the Colombian attacked around 5km from the summit of the Col de l’Iseran, managing to drop every other rider in what was by then a diminished group of favourites.
By the summit, he had a lead of around one minute ahead of a chasing group including Thomas and GC rivals Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe), and two minutes to Alaphilippe.
Another 38km was supposed to be raced from this point, including a category one finishing climb of the Montée de Tignes, and looked set-up to be packed full of drama. Could Bernal hang on for a spectacular solo victory? Or would the chasers recover and claw him back?
We’ll never know, but Bernal was still rewarded for his bold move with the yellow jersey – but not the stage win, as the organisers decided in the circumstances that it would not be awarded.
He now has just one day of racing to take the yellow jersey to Paris, which would make him the first ever Colombian winner of the race. The way this Tour has gone so far, however, we should expect more twists and turns to come tomorrow.
Disaster for Julian Alaphippe, or could it have been worse?
Julian Alaphilippe at last lost the yellow jersey after 11 consecutive days of battling hard to defend it and continually defying the odds.
It’s up for debate whether the stage stoppage played in his favour or not. Alaphilippe himself was visibly upset at the situation, no doubt confident that he could continue to make up ground on the descent and bridge the gap to the group containing Thomas, Kruijswijk and Buchmann.
On the other hand, having cracked on the Col de l’Iseran, there was every chance that, even if he did manage to catch back up to that group, he would have been distanced again on the Montée de Tignes, and lost substantially more time.
One thing for certain is that it would have been thrilling to watch him try, and being denied the chance to watch him do so was among one of the most disappointing aspects of the shortening of the stage.
He’ll now have to move on and focus on tomorrow’s stage, and either mount an unlikely bid to attempt to regain the yellow jersey, or, more plausibly, hang on to a podium finish. That would still be an extraordinary achievement for a rider who has never before made the top 30 in a Grand Tour.
Thibaut Pinot abandons
You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel sorry for Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ).
Having ridden an exceptional Tour de France up until today, and with a genuine shot of winning the yellow jersey, his race ended in tears as an injury forced him to abandon.
It was clear something was up early in the day when Pinot was seen off the back of the peloton by the medical car fiddling with bandages, and concern quickly escalated into alarm when the grimacing Frenchman drifted further and further down the race.
Eventually, when team-mate William Bonnet put a consoling arm around his shoulder and spoke a few words into his ear, Pinot gave up the ghost, dismounting his bike in tears and climbing forlornly into his team car.
It was later suggested that a muscular injury in his thigh was the problem, possibly sustained after banging his leg on handlebars during stage 17.
This is far from the first time that Pinot has had to leave a Grand Tour prematurely. Off the 12 Grand Tours he has started, half have ended with him abandoning, most recently at last year’s Giro when illness denied him a podium finish on the penultimate day of the whole race.
He’s likely to be back fighting for the yellow jersey again next July, but you can’t help but feel that he’ll never get a better chance than this year promised.
Where the GC now stands
Following the chaos of today’s stage, the overall classification now has a very different look to it.
Egan Bernal is the new yellow jersey, meaning that Team Ineos are virtually certain to revert away from the aggressive tactics they’ve so far raced with during the Alps, and back to a more familiar defensive set-up.
With Thomas now 1-11 down in third on GC, he’ll likely ride as super-domestique for Bernal, setting the tempo near the top of the climb and helping protect the Colombian from any attacks.
Those attacks are likely to come from Steven Kruijswijk and Emanuel Buchmann, who, having mostly ridden a defensive race so far (although Kruijswijk did put in an attack today just before Bernal’s decisive move), must now ride aggressively if they want to try and win the yellow jersey.
It’s still possible for both to do so – the time gaps of 1-23 and 1-50 each behind Bernal respectively aren’t too big, while Ineos still don’t look like the force they have been in previous Tours.
We could also see Alaphilippe – who we think is still in second place – attack in an attempt to make up the 45 seconds he needs to usurp Bernal, although this would require some turnaround given his diminishing form.
With three huge climbs on the menu tomorrow, including the remarkably long 33km mountain of Val Thorens at the finish, we could be treated to an all-time classic Tour de France stage tomorrow.