Since Bernard Hinault won the 1985 Tour de France, the French have been shut out of their home Grand Tour. Riders from Germany, Italy, Spain, the United States, Ireland, Australia, Great Britain, Denmark, and even Luxembourg have all taken home the yellow jersey, while French riders have come up short over and over again. Heartbreak has become the norm for French fans, as they’ve had to watch Laurent Fignon lose by eight seconds on the last day of the 1989 Tour, Thomas Voeckler twice cough up the jersey deep into a run at glory, and this current generation of French stars fall to the unstoppable machinery of Team Sky.
Until this year, when a French win is more plausible than it’s been in decades.
The 2019 Tour de France is headed into the final week of racing tomorrow with six strong contenders grouped together at the top of the standings. The first Chris Froome-less Tour has lived up to its billing, and the lack of a central dominant force has made the race equal parts entertaining and unpredictable. The biggest surprise of the Grand Boucle has been the man in the yellow jersey himself, Julian Alaphilippe.
Alaphilippe was supposed to win Stage 3 in Epernay, and he obliged. He was then supposed to lose it on the Planche des Belles Filles three days later, as he’s not the sort of seasoned, steady mountain climber who sticks around as a race leader for the duration of a three-week race. Alaphilippe is perhaps the best puncheur in the world, and while he’s great at one-day races and the occasional weeklong stage race, there wasn’t much in his record to suggest that he was a real contender to hold the yellow jersey through any serious terrain.
Instead, he bested every single one of the sport’s best general classification contenders, except for defending champion Geraint Thomas, on that summit finish. Alaphilippe was supposed to fork over the jersey after last Friday’s time trial. Instead, he put in the ride of his life and won the stage, beating Thomas by 16 seconds and emphatically announcing himself as a rider to be feared.
One day after the time trial, Alaphilippe faced the towering Col du Tourmalet, and again he beat Thomas, this time by 30 seconds, and finished second on the stage (which naturally prompted doping allegations). He finally showed cracks on yesterday’s dramatic summit finish, but he heads into the final week with a 1:35 lead on Thomas and a slightly larger gap on the other four contenders. He has today’s rest day and Tuesday and Wednesday’s tame, flat stages to recoup before three brutal days in the Alps.
A lead of 95 seconds is not much given the hairy terrain coming up. Stage 18 features the daunting Col du Galibier, Stage 19 finishes on a tricky climb, and Stage 20 wraps up the competitive racing with a hellacious 33.4-kilometer climb. The vultures are circling. Alaphilippe doesn’t seem built for this, but he didn’t seem built for any of the challenges he’s faced down so far.
However, his principal rival is neither Thomas nor his Colombian teammate Egan Bernal. Team Ineos (formerly Team Sky) has looked overmatched for the first time since 2012, and they very clearly do not have the oomph to pull off their infamous peloton-neutralizing tactics. Wout Poels is not as good as he was last year, and a clear sense of discord between Thomas and Bernal has developed. Thibaut Pinot, who looks like the strongest rider in the race, is Alaphilippe’s most significant threat.
For a while there, this seemed like it would be a typical Pinot Tour. He’s had plenty of bad luck in Tours past, and he was unlucky enough to be caught out on the unexpectedly brutal crosswinds that shredded the peloton on Stage 10. That seemed like the death of a serious bid at victory for Pinot, which it was for Rigoberto Uran, Jakob Fuglsang, Richie Porte, Mikel Landa, and George Bennett. However, Pinot also put in the time trial of his life, and was comfortably the most dominant rider in the Pyrenees. He won atop the Tourmalet and gobbled back the entire 1:40 gap he spotted Thomas and others with crushing attacks on Stages 14 and 15. French president Emmanuel Macron lauded Pinot and Alaphilippe as French heroes and urged them to “end the curse.”
I think one of them will, and my money would be on Pinot. For once, he has a strong team around him, as young David Gaudu is one of the strongest mountain lieutenants in the peloton. Ineos’s vulnerability gives Pinot the space to make his searing attacks count, since they don’t seem to have the firepower to shoot them down. This dynamic has made the 2019 Tour more entertaining than every previous race since the 2011 battle between Cadel Evans and Andy Schleck.