After two days on a Dutchman’s shoulders, the Tour de France’s yellow jersey is back with the French for the first time in five years. The question now is how long it will stay there.
Stage 3 of the Tour looked like it would be the first entertaining stage of this year’s race back when the course was revealed last October, and the peloton delivered today. A flat start in Belgium gave way to four categorized climbs in Champagne within the final 40 kilometers of racing, with the final ascent topping out around 16 kilometers from the finish.
As a rule, the best Tour stages tend to be these sorts of tweeners. If a stage is too flat, sprint teams shut down every move, set up their trains, and attempt to launch their sprinters at the last second. Too hilly, and it’s a race of attrition, with less room for surprises. But if organizers stick a little hill right before the finish, or stack mountains in a short, punchy stage, that sets the stage for brave attacks.
That brings us to the Côte de Mutigny, a little 900-meter ramp at 12.2 percent. Julian Alaphilippe punched his way to the top of the finish with a furious attack, earning a sizable gap on the peloton in no time at all. Despite flying solo through the final kilometers into Epernay, he didn’t look back, not even when the pace cars were pulled from the area between him and the other riders, and he built up his advantage to take the stage win.
It’s not always easy riding into a stage as the obvious favorite, as Alaphilippe was here. Rivals mark your wheel, and the onus is on you to get away even with the extra attention. The profile of this stage seemed tailor-made for Alaphilippe, and he scouted the course ahead of time to be as prepared as possible. For his troubles, he earned France’s first yellow jersey since Tony Gallopin had it for a day in 2014.
Alaphilippe should hold onto it through Stages 4 and 5, but the question is whether he can survive Stage 6 on Thursday. If he can stay within 40 seconds of the Team Ineos leaders and within 25 seconds of the Jumbo-Visma crew, he’ll be in great position to hold onto the jersey until the time trial on Stage 13. But to do so, he’ll need to stay strong through seven categorized climbs and a summit finish atop the famed La Planche des Belles Filles.
Alaphilippe is as punchy as they come, and while he’s won weeklong stage races and locked down the polka-dot King of the Mountains jersey at the Tour before, he does not seem to be built for the day-after-day rigors and long, unforgiving days of a Tour de France contender. He’s been so successful as a one-day race specialist that he shouldn’t change focus now. Hopefully Alaphilippe gives Stage 6 a full effort anyway, since there are few riders more entertaining than him.