How long can Julian Alaphilippe hang on for?
One of the most intriguing storylines of the second week looks set to revolve around Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and how well he can defend the yellow jersey.
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The Frenchman has been cagey about his chances, insisting that he is taking things day by day, but, intriguingly, he has not categorically ruled out the possibility of taking it all the way to Paris.
Riding with typical panache, Alaphilippe has been terrific all Tour, first winning on the race’s first stage in France with an explosive punchy attack, then riding side-by-side with the best climbers in the world on the first summit finish at Planche des Belles Filles, and finally reclaiming yellow with a swashbuckling attack on stage eight. But he’s never before ridden for GC in a Grand Tour, his highest career finish being 33rd at last year’s Tour, and has only occasionally shown an aptitude for the high mountains.
Can he do it? We’ll have a much clearer picture after the second week’s key time trial and trio of mountain stages have been completed.
GC candidates playing catch up to Ineos
Even before the race has reached the Pyrenees, all the major pre-race favourites have lost ground to the Ineos pair of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal.
A strong team time trial, commanding performance on La Planche des Belles Filles and destructive attacking amid stage 10’s crosswinds have ensured that they lie second and third on GC respectively, meaning the pressure will be on everyone else to attack and try and gain time on them in this week’s Pyrenean stages.
Some riders have more time to make up than others. At 52 seconds and 2-08 from Thomas respectively, both Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale) will need to be aggressive in their quest to gain time if they’re serious about winning yellow – especially as their deficits are likely to increase substantially after Friday’s time trial.
Then there’s the likes of Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), and, in particular Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), who all appear to be on great form, yet still have significant ground to make up due to a mixture of bad positioning / luck during yesterday’s crosswinds, and underwhelming contributions from their domestiques in the team time trial.
This is where the Tour really gets going. We had our fair share of drama in the first week, from losses sustained in the team time trial, to the summit finish at Planche des Belles Filles, to the chaos of stage 10’s crosswinds. But all that might turn out to have been a phony war once the race hits the Pyrenees.
There will be a total of three stages in the feared mountain range. First up is a stage to Bagnères-de-Bigorre on Thursday, featuring the Col de Peyresourde and Hourquette d’Ancizan. Both are fearsome climbs ranked category one, but a 30km descent and run-in to the finish following the summit of the latter could mean the stage might be ridden a little cagily.
By contrast, the double header of summit finishes at the weekend, starting with the Tourmalet on Saturday followed by Prat d’Albis on Sunday, are guaranteed to turn the race on its head.
With only one summit finish of a comparable nature to come in the Alps, any climbers with aspirations of a high finish on GC have to make a move here, and go as deep as they can to gain as much time as possible.
There’s nowhere to hide on climbs as difficult as these Pyrenean monsters. Contenders who have been doing everything they can to preserve energy up until now will have to give it there all here, meaning we’ll get a true picture of which riders are really capable of challenging for the maillot jaune.
As always, it will be thrilling to watch.
The race’s sole individual time trial
There aren’t any other individual time trials at the 2019 Tour de France, which renders Friday’s 27.2km stage to Pau and back all the more crucial.
This will be the one day that specialists against the clock can really punish the purer climbers, and the likes of Geraint Thomas (Ineos), Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) will be desperate to make the most of the opportunity to gain time and improve their position on GC.
On the contrary, a particularly bad day could spell the end of some of the purer climbers’ chances, meaning riders including Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) will be nervous ahead of it.
A fairly hilly course should at least level the playing field a little, but the 27.2km length still means that time gaps could be substantial.
Col du Tourmalet
Whatever else you may be up to this week, be sure to keep Saturday afternoon free. Stage 14 is not only the probable highlight of the second week, but potentially of the whole Tour.
The finishing climb of the Col du Tourmalet alone makes the stage essential viewing. It’s one of the most legendary climbs in Tour history, having been tackled on a regular basis since its first inclusion way back in 1910. All the great climbers from cycling history have crested it as leader of the race, from Fausto Coppi and Gino Bartali, to Federico Bahamontes and Lucian Van Impe, to Raymond Poulidor and Eddy Merckx.
This year’s visit promises to be extra special, as the Tourmalet hosts a stage finish for just the third time. It last did so in 2010, when Alberto Contador all but sealed the yellow jersey by withstanding several accelerations from rival Andy Shleck (that is, until he was stripped of the victory following a positive doping test).
Although this stage occurs earlier in the race than that occasion, when it was the final mountain stage, it looks set to be just as important. At just 117.5km in total, it promises to be an intense stage, with the category one Col du Soulor included to soften the legs prior to the Tourmalet.
This could be the day when the Tour de France is won and lost.
One day for the sprinters
Prior to the Pyrenees, the sprinters have one chance this week to try their luck in a bunch finish.
There are only two categorised climbs on stage 11, meaning this should be a far more straightforward day for the sprinters than the majority of week one stages, which have generally been hillier and offered more to encourage breakaways.
Some sprinters may chose to go home after this stage, given the sheer amount of climbing to come combined with the paucity of future chances from now until the Champs-Élysées. These riders will be extra motivated to give it there all for one last chance of a stage win.
Given that this is his debut Tour de France, plus the fact that he has not completed any of his previous four Grand Tours, Caleb Ewan (Lotto-Soudal) may be on such rider. He’s coming closer and closer to winning a stage win, having managed three third places and one second place in a photo finish behind Dylan Groenewegen (Jumbo-Visma) on stage seven, but will be deeply frustrated if he goes home without getting to lift his arms in celebration at all this Tour.