With no time trial in the final week, this year’s race for the yellow jersey will be decided by a trio of huge mountains stages in the Alps.
First up is a lengthy, 207km slog from Embrun to Valloire on Thursday, that takes in three huge Alpine passes. The category one Col de Vars is followed by the legendary double-header of the Col d’Izoard and Col du Galibier, climbs so relentlessly energy-sapping that even a 19km descent from the finish should not prevent a full-throttle battle among the favourites.
The following day’s stage to Tignes is different in the sense that it’s almost half the length (123km), but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in intensity - five climbs are packed into the day, most significantly the hors category Col de l’Iseran - which, at 2,770m, is the highest paved road pass in the French Alps, and the summit finish atop Montee de Tignes.
There’s no let up the following day for the Tour’s Alpine finale, another intense stage designed for fireworks right from the off. The road heads upwards almost immediately for the category one Côte de Roseland, followed by the category two Côte de Longefoy and culminating in the seemingly never-ending climb of Val Thorens, a humongous 33.4km effort that will decide once and for all the winner of the 2019 Tour de France.
The closest GC race in years
After several years of predictable outcomes and foregone conclusions, we at last enter the final week of a Tour de France with genuinely no idea as to who is going to win.
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step) continues to lead the race with a decent margin of 1-35 ahead of closest challenger Geraint Thomas (Ineos), but began to look very vulnerable on the Prat d’Albis finish of Sunday's stage.
Behind him, the next five riders are all remarkably separated by a mere 39 seconds, with each harbouring realistic hopes of winning yellow.
The Ineos duo of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal were pre-race favourites and, despite not dominating the race like last year, remain well-placed enough to still potentially retain yellow.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) is the on-form rider of the race, having been the best performer in the Pyrenees, but still has a deficit to make up thanks to the time he lost in the crosswinds on stage ten.
Steven Kruijswijk boasts what appears to be the best team with his Jumbo-Visma team-mates George Bennett and Laurens De Plus providing excellent support in the mountains, while Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) has so far been the equal of all of these better-known riders and could sneak into the lead if he continues to not put a foot wrong.
There might only be five more days to race until we arrive in Paris, but history suggests that that’s still plenty of time of time for things to go horribly wrong for the riders currently at the top of the classification.
All of the top six are notable either for their lack of experience at this stage of a Grand Tour, or for a past of capitulating in the final week.
Neither Julian Alaphlippe nor Egan Bernal have ever ridden for GC at a Grand Tour, while Emanuel Buchmann’s highest finish over three weeks is 12th at last year’s Vuelta.
Both Thibaut Pinot and Steven Kruijswijk have fared better, with career bests of third (at the 2014 Tour) and fourth (at the 2016 Giro and 2018 Vuelta) respectively, however both also have unpleasant memories of Grand Tour final weeks - Pinot lost a podium spot at the 2018 Giro after falling ill in the final few days, while Kruijswijk memorably crashed on a descent at the 2016 Giro while in the pink jersey.
Geraint Thomas was of course exceptional in winning the Tour last year, but that remains the exception in his career, and his habit for crashing worryingly resurfaced during the first half of this race.
With a final week promising suffocatingly hot weather and oxygen-sapping high altitude passes, there’s a good chance we’ll witness more dramatic downfalls.
The calm before the storm
Before we return to the headline act of the race for the yellow jersey, there are two stages that give non-GC riders a chance to take the spotlight.
Tuesday’s stage 16 looks set to be one for the sprinters, and with Elia Viviani (Deceuninck-Quick-Step), Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) and Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) all still in the race, looks set to be very competitive.
However, bunch sprints are never guaranteed, especially this deep into a race when there are so many fatigued riders and depleted teams. What could be key is whether Deceuninck-Quick-Step and Jumbo-Visma chose to help control the day’s break, or decide to preserve their resources for the upcoming GC battle.
Stage s17 almost looks guaranteed to be a day for the breakaway, meaning there will likely be a huge battle at the start of the stage to get into it, with the likes of Thomas De Gendt (Lotto-Soudal), Matteo Trentin (Mitchelton-Scott), Matej Mohorič (Bahrain-Merida) and Greg Van Avermaet (CCC) all potentially featuring.
A fast descent to the finish in Gap after the 5.2km climb of Col de la Sentinelle will be decisive in terms of the stage win - and could even by a launchpad for a GC rider to attempt to gain some time. Keep a watchful eye on master descender Julian Alaphilippe.
As ever, the Tour will finish with the famous circuit around the streets of Paris.
Often described as a processional affair, it is anything but for the sprinters, who desire winning this stage above all others in the race. For them it’s known as the ‘sprinters' World Championships’, and all will be willing to haul themselves through three back-to-back stages in the Alps just for the chance of glory on the Champs-Élysées.
Alexander Kristoff (UAE Team Emirates) saved his Tour de France last year with victory here, and will be hoping to do something similar after two weeks of mostly underwhelming performances. Dylan Groenewegen won last time he was here in 2017, and is ideally suited to its long, wide finishing straight.
Elia Viviani and Caleb Ewan would both be aiming to win here for the first time in their careers - as would Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who, somewhat surprisingly given how he’s arrived here six times already while wearing the green jersey, has never finished higher than second.
British Road National Championships 2021 start list: Mark Cavendish, Ethan Hayter and Alice Barnes all down to ride
Mark Cavendish, Ben Swift, Ethan Hayter, Alice Barnes, Joss Lowden, and others set to race in Lincoln
By Tim Bonville-Ginn •
Petr Vakoč retires from cycling at the age of 29 after successful injury comeback
The former Czech road race champion never made it back to his peak form after being hit by lorry in South Africa in 2018
By Tim Bonville-Ginn •