Pinch yourself, it’s over. After a glorious parade around Paris, the sun set on a vintage edition of the race which provided action and variety across three weeks. It’s impossible to pick one moment of the race but as a symbol let’s go with Egan Bernal on the Col du Galibier, he’s distanced everyone with a strong attack and it’s a move propels him up into second overall, now just 1m30s behind Julian Alaphilippe which puts him just ahead of his team mate Geraint Thomas and well clear of the others. Thibaut Pinot, for reasons we’d later discover, can’t close the gap and nor can Steven Kruijswijk and Emanuel Buchmann either.
Where to begin? A roundabout in Andorra where Egan Bernal crashed and had to skip the Giro? The road in Pouilly-les-Nonains where a gust of wind caught Chris Froome’s wheels? We could start in Brussels but in a Tour that would end with some “what if” questions, these freak circumstances helped shape things too.
The start in Brussels was a celebration of Eddy Merckx and more than a theme, the warmth of the public towards him was palpable. It was a jackpot for Jumbo-Visma with Mike Teunissen taking a surprise stage win and they won the team time trial stage win. In the moment the story was just how close gaps were but with hindsight it gave Steven Kruijswijk a head start over Emanuel Buchmann and his Bora-Hansgrohe team of 46 seconds and come Paris the Dutchman was third overall and on the podium some 25 seconds ahead. It’s too simplistic to say the TTT settled third and fourth place in Paris but it played its part.
The race returned to France and Julian Alaphilippe took the stage and the yellow jersey in Epernay and backstage once he saw the yellow jersey he burst into tears. Most thought he’d quickly lose his fizz as quickly as a bottle of champagne and it suited some teams to have him in yellow so that Deceuninck-Quickstep would work. Remember when we were asking if he could hold on to the jersey at the Planche des Belles Filles? He’d go on to be the star of the race and reach an audience that wins in Sanremo and Huy earlier this year can’t deliver. On the same day the field split and both Thibaut Pinot and Egan Bernal made it on the right side while Geraint Thomas just missed and lost five seconds. Almost anecdotal but at the time we were wondering about Thomas’s form and as we’ll get to later, this gap would count in a small way in the Alps.
Peter Sagan got his stage win in Colmar. He’s won the green jersey without winning a stage before but got one this time from a reduced bunch sprint and now wins the green jersey for a seventh time. He quickly built a lead and had no contest. The sight of him in green feels like a cliché every July but let’s note his consistency and how he left the likes of Michael Matthews scratching their heads and if Caleb Ewan was the fastest sprinter he was still far off the points classification because he saved himself by not contesting many intermediate points.
Ewan took three sprint stages and was the most consistent of the trio of top sprinters. Dylan Groenewegen and Elia Viviani had a stage each but were more volatile – Viviani was pace-setting in the mountains – while Ewan never placed lower than third in any of the sprints and all three were reliable compared to the others. Yet the Australian was never imperious, he won when it mattered but it was a close competition and the way the sprint finishes were spread out across the three weeks meant they were lively rather than repetitive.
The Planche des Belles Filles was the first rendez-vous for the GC contenders and came at the end of a hard day in the Vosges mountains where Dylan Teuns took the stage and Giulio Ciccone the yellow jersey. This time it was Super Planche as riders rode through the old finish to take a dusty track with a 22% gradients at the finish, a summit finish chased by a Strade Bianche segment and the Koppenberg stuck on top. It reads like a gimmick but raced like a dream, with dust clouds and footage of riders surging and collapsing in the final 200m was spectacular yet didn’t blow the GC apart. Alaphilippe lost the jersey but attacked while Thomas made a late surge to cancel the five second deficit he’d lost in Epernay and Pinot played it cool, it would have been easy to get carried away on his local mountain but he saved himself for the final ramp.
The stage to Chalon-sur-Saône was probably the most boring to watch in full with a forlorn breakaway from Stéphane Rossetto (Cofidis) and Yoann Offredo (Wanty-Gobert) but kudos to them for trying when other teams hid in the peloton, the likes of Total Direct Energie tried to save themselves for the second half of the race but weren’t the baroudeurs of before and World Tour squads like Dimension Data and Katusha-Alpecin fared no better and now sit lower on the UCI rankings than Cofidis and Wanty-Gobert. Rossetto’s 32 and rode his first Tour, racking 809km in the breakaways, more than anyone else. Just starting the Tour was a win for Offredo, temporarily tetraplegic after a crash in the GP de Denain in March and he told L’Equipe’s Philippe Brunel how was rushed to hospital where the doctor said he’d had another Wanty rider in the very same bed, this turned out to be his late team mate Antoine Demoitié and once Offredo resumed training he had to be prescribed anti-anxiety medicine to keep going. Anecdotal but it shows everyone has their stories from the top to the bottom of GC, and the Tour, with its giant media caravan, can tell us so much. July must be what it’s like to be a football fan, with cycling filling out the pages of L’Equipe and sometimes making the front pages elsewhere too, add on total TV coverage and then after day’s sport you can take your pick of radio phone-ins and if you still have a quiet moment there are podcasts galore to tease out more.
The stage to Saint-Etienne is one for the ages. A breakaway of just four riders seemed too small amid the Beaujolais vineyards but Thomas De Gendt would take one of his best wins, he hardly lost any time in the final kilometres. Alaphilippe put in a late attack and Thibaut Pinot jumped away with him. It put Alaphilippe back in yellow and put goosebumps on Pinot: look closely at his legs in the picture. It didn’t need hindsight to see this move wasn’t going to change the race but it showed Alaphilippe attacking where everyone expected him to attack and still pulling it off while Pinot was in sparkling form, almost every day something was happening to make the race lively. Indeed earlier Geraint Thomas had crashed on the descent and escaped unscathed, and the way he bridged back showed his form.
The stage to Albi ended up as more than sprint finish thanks to the crosswinds and roundabouts. Alaphilippe – him again – was instrumental in pulling the race apart and Groupama-FDJ were among those caught out and they almost got back, one point Pinot and Fuglsang were 11 seconds away but it was their haste and panic that saw them burn up the chase and meant they finished 1m40s behind in Albi. Wout van Aert won the stage to mark his golden Tour debut and this triumph saved the blushes of Jumbo-Visma who had started the day with George Bennett fourth overall but they let him fetch bottles just as the wind got up. Bennett though came to support Kruijswijk and he and Laurens De Plus were the two most consistent lieutenants in the race, when Kruijswijk stepped on the podium in Paris it was in part thanks to them.
Simon Yates will be an unsung hero of the race. A late pick to help his brother Adam, he ended up winning two stages in the Pyrenees, alongside stage wins for team mates Darly Impey and Matteo Trentin. Forever seen as twins and subject to comparisons, the two now have very different records.
The Pau TT was a big day for a race defined by its climbs. Recent editions of the Tour have had few kilometres of time trialling and this time the only individual TT came in the middle of the race. The Tour was better for it, nobody would go into the mountains with a joker to play on the way out. Alaphilipe won, he set the fastest time at the first time check and it looked like he’d flounder on the flatter run back to Pau but matched Geraint Thomas and then sprinted up the final ramp into town to take back a few seconds more and finish the day further ahead on GC than he started. It turned out he’d visited the course for a recon which raises eyebrows about his approach the race, as if he’d nurtured ambitions for the GC all along. Then again you could look at the Tour’s route and see how he could take yellow at some point on the way to Pau and so riding a good TT would help to preserve the jersey rather than, and besideshe only lives a short drive away in Andorra. The win surprised some and even made some suspicious but this was probably the height of this year’s dopage talk and people surprised to see Alaphilippe climbing well and winning time trials but they might have missed him climbing well the previous year or winning time trials this year and before, but all this is narrative rather than facts, a Rohrschach test where people see patterns rather than knowing anything.
The Tourmalet summit finish was a set-piece stage and Movistar and Groupama-FDJ got to work. Ineos rode differently, partly because they didn’t have a lead to defend but several of their riders just weren’t riding as well and talk of “strategy” sounds like spin. Movistar fared worse, their pace-setting dropped Nairo Quintana and it was symbolic of their bizarre race, winning the team prize but at times riding each other down. The Colombian would still take a stage win in the Alps, a consolation after a hard crash earlier in the race. Groupama-FDJ looked more cohesive and David Gaudu thinned the lead group down on the upper slopes of the Tourmalet. Emanuel Buchmann launched the attack that sunk Thomas, this was the first glimpse of the defending champion losing his crown and rounding the final hairpin bend Pinot attacked and put daylight between all the others to win the stage and lift his morale 2,115 metres high.
The next day while Simon Yates was riding to a second stage win at the Prat d’Albis, Pinot attacked with seven kilometres to go. This move changed plenty because for the first time Alaphilippe started to lose time, he tried to match the others as they tried to follow but was redlining and cracked, Icarus was beginning to lose a few feathers. Yet he went into the Pyrenees 1m11s ahead on GC and came out of them 1m35s ahead and was starting to look a lot more tenacious. We got a climbing pecking order on the climbs with Pinot as the aggressor who, thanks to his attacks and time bonuses, gained 1m41 on the two mountain stages to reverse his Albi damnation. Bernal was only just shaken off by Pinot but all on a slope that had eased off so it took force to do this. Buchmann was close and then further down came Thomas and Kruijswijk to make six contenders.
Stage 18 was the first big day in the Alps with three climbs over 2,000m and while Nairo Quintana won the stage thanks to a fierce attack on the Galibier out of the breakaway, behind Egan Bernal jumped quickly and opened up a gap on the GC rivals approaching 30 seconds. Thomas tried an attack and it was a curious move, explained later as a deliberate team tactic but do we buy this? Both Bernal and Thomas were competing for the win and it seemed to show. Still Thomas’s move didn’t come with much of cost for the team, he could try to see if he could make it but without reeling in Bernal. The day ended with Bernal now up to second overall and with the first option on the yellow jersey should Alaphilippe crack again and the Colombian was just five seconds ahead of his team mate, the same gap caused by the split in Epernay all those days ago. It didn’t give Bernal automatic rights but it did show him climbing faster and now able to show he was ahead. What we didn’t know was Pinot was injured and telling a soigneur at the finish “I could hardly pedal… it’s ruined“.
Up until this point we’d had a Tour à la Netflix with days of Hitchcockian suspense and cliffhangers. But Stage 19 was if the gods decided to sack the screenwriter and draft in Werner Herzog. First Pinot, a central character, was written out of the script to heighten the pathos. He’d torn a quadriceps muscle, a rare injury, the kind you get in football or contact sports and he was out of the race before we could see what he’d do in the Alps. Then Herzog struck again, this time as clouds gathered over the Graian peaks and within minutes the wrath of nature was pitted against the race, the route white with giant hailstones while further down the mountain rocks poured over the road. It was all diabolus ex machina, an unsolvable problem sent from the heavens. Within minutes the race director and UCI commissaires decided to stop the stage and retroactively apply the times taken at the top of the Col d’Iseran for the overall classification. Unsatisfactory but probably the wisest decision in the circumstances but leaving a big question as to whether Bernal would have rode into Tignes with Simon Yates to become the uncontested race leader or whether Kruijswijk and De Plus would have reeled him back. Perhaps David Lynch wrote this section of the script and things are meant to be this vague? More realistically it’s the flipside of the Tour de France and indeed any bike race as it takes place outside: there’s no stadium with a retractable roof, there are no breaks because of rain and roads across the mountains are opened and closed many times a year, vast resources are spent ensuing the Tour can pass sometimes but a sudden storm can change the course of a race.
The final mountain stage was cut short because of weather damage. We saw Vincenzo Nibali win, adding another golden line to his palmarès and once again Movistar confused. Julian Alaphilippe started the morning second overall and started the stage with French TV asking if he could win the stage and reclaim the jersey but he was too polite to say much in return. Indeed Jumbo-Visma got to work early on the climb and this showed their ambition was to crack Alaphilippe rather than Thomas and Kruijswijk and they duly got their team leader onto the podium in Paris. Romain Bardet was dropped but won the mountains competition and saved his Tour with this. The sight of him in full polka-dot kit on the final stage was audacious for someone who’d only crossed one climb in first place – the Port de Lers – but don’t hate the player, hate the game. This year’s competition saw HC climbs given double their usual points and so tilted it away from Tim Wellens who had worn the jersey for much of the race but he struggled to score at altitude. Perhaps the solution for next year is to revert the scale, rewarding the riders who score throughout with more points? The danger with fiddling in order to revise one year’s result and in this instance you could end up rewarding someone who is dropped on the big climbs. It’s much more a contest defined by its winner rather than one that makes the rider, for example Alaphilippe’s win last year for example was satisfying, he made the jersey his own.
Finally the chart above shows the GC standings throughout the race. For a lively race, the lines still track each other, this wasn’t a story of wild swings in fortunes, of rising and sinking fortunes; it was snakes-and-ladders for Pinot and Alaphilippe but less so with the others who had a more gradual advance to Paris. The blue line of Alaphilippe rode high for far longer than anyone expected and his challengers curves only started to tilt up well beyond the half-way point, until then Alaphilippe was taking time all over the place, from Brussels Pau via Epernay and Saint-Etienne. Thomas rode the steadiest of races but how could he have converted this into a win? Kruijswijk and Buchmann rode similar races, the German faring worse in the two time trials but rivals in the mountains, Kruijswijk’s podium place was a steady ride and Buchmann never got the better of him but the German is six years younger and still a work-in-progress. Pinot’s line is the most dynamic, that big fall on Stage 10 cost him but he closed the gap in the Pyrenees before it all ended. For years he’s had an ambigous relation with the Tour, a debut stage win, a triumph at Alpe d’Huez but also four DNFs but this time he says it’s all about the Tour and he promises to be back.
The favourite won and Ineos picked up where Team Sky left off with a podium 1-2. Only it was all so different. This was a glorious three weeks with action, intensity and variety, not just because the overall winner wasn’t obvious until late but the daily stage battles and varied route delivered plenty. The best ever? Maybe not thanks to the weather going rogue for two Alpine stages, plus Pinot’s absence left a vacuum. It’s been an edition to savour in the moment and scored some very high TV ratings and now it’s done the 2019 Tour surely passes the “DVD test” because you’d buy the DVD highlights video to watch over winter. You’d buy a DVD player as well.
For much of the three weeks Bernal’s win was possible yet often uncertain and at times unlikely. The route through the Vosges and Massif central brought variety and drama with riders willing to exploit it, none more so than Julian Alaphilippe who enlivened the race, whether the early stage wins or turning defence into offence. He cried when he saw his yellow jersey, as did Bernal such is the power of the 100 year old icon. If Pinot’s absence dampened the stage and the finale of the race, the neutralisation of Stage 19 iced things. There was little else to do and taking the times while not awarding the stage win is probably the wisest conclusion, yet still unsatisfactory. We’ll never know whether Bernal would have ridden onto victory Tignes but he’s got time on his side to show us. He’s won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse so far this year and this win was earned rather than delivered by the commissaires. He was ahead on the Galibier and opened up a big gap on the Iseran. Among the GC contenders only Pinot was superior in the mountains while at Val Thorens as Bernal sat up to shake hands with Thomas he’d distanced Kruijswijk and Buchmann so the podium feels right.
It’s the first Colombian win in Paris after Fabio Parra, Nairo Quintana and Rigoberto Urán have stood on the podium and about time given the country’s passion for cycling and a production line of talent, we could have seen stage wins from Fernando Gaviria and Miguel Angel Lopez had they rode and watch out for the likes of Daniel Martinez, Sergio Higuita and Ivan Sosa soon. The first of many for Bernal? As a general observation the sport has seen plenty of riders who looked set to dominate only to flop. Yet on specifics Bernal seems grounded, mature beyond his 22 years – he almost gave up cycling to go into journalism, briefly attending a private university and didn’t have one of those mythical upbringings where he had to ride 15km uphill to school on a rusty bike and then pedal 15km back home uphill – plus he is a complete rider who can handle mountains and plains alike. Still this was hardly the victory of a cannibal, he didn’t win a stage, his time trial saw him lose almost a minute to Pinot and Kruijswijk, he was dropped in the Pyrenees before making the difference in the Alps and it’s the closest podium of all time so he’s far from invincible.
We’ll see what 2020 brings. Usually snippets of the route leak out in the final week of the race but so far there’s nothing beyond the advertised grand départ in Nice: possibly the Puy Mary in the Auvergne, maybe a detour via Switzerland and most likely some surprises. The good news is that 2020 is an Olympic year and the Tour de France has been brought forward to avoid a clash with the Tokyo games so there’s even less time to wait until it starts all over again.