Le Tour’s turning out to be a vintage edition, a three week game of snakes and ladders with riders going up and down almost every day. Julian Alaphilippe’s looked brittle yet leaves the Pyrenees with more of lead than he went in with. Thibaut Pinot’s had the best weekend, taking back more time on Saturday and Sunday than he lost in the crosswinds to Albi. Steven Kruijswijk’s strong and the longer Alpine climbs should suit him more plus his Jumbo-Visma team look very strong. Ineos aren’t out of the race either with Geraint Thomas still second overall and Egan Bernal was the last to hold Thibaut Pinot’s wheel on the Prat d’Albis. Then come a list of riders with nothing to lose and as we saw yesterday on the Mur de Péguère, riders like Landa aren’t waiting for the final climb to launch raids.
Estimates claim 7 million people in France are watching the Tour, giving the broadcaster a crushing 50% audience share but it makes you wonder: what the other 60 million French people are doing? Some have tuned out and turned up as the roadside crowds look big (note: yesterday’s Prat d’Albis was only open to cyclists and people willing to walk up). It helps having two French riders in the lead, and yes this angle is exploited by the home media but it’s the variety, surprise and uncertainty that must be boosting ratings.
“Tour de Trance” headlines L’Equipe today and it’ll be better to return to why it’s been a great race once it’s actually finished, otherwise it’s trying to review a restaurant mid-meal but for now the ingredients, service, venue and courses so far have been exquisite. The route with its Eastern bias has ensured varied geography which has helped deliver route à la Netflix with some dramatic opening scenes and then regular cliffhangers. We’ve had peripeteia galore, take Pinot losing time only to take it back, Ineos not (yet?) weighing on the race, Alaphilippe as a bicycling Icarus and more, think Thomas De Gendt’s stage win and even the sprint stages have seem the honours shared rather than serving up repeat episodes.
Ordinarily the Tour would be heading into the Alps with a pattern established in the Pyrenees. In recent years this means Chris Froome or Geraint Thomas in yellow and a deflating sense of inevitability as the focus for sport switches to the stage wins, the podium places and even the dreaded team prize and people start arguing over race radios and powermeters. This time it’s all so open and given the racing so far predictions seem foolhardy. Still, let’s review where each rider stands…
A rider who holds the yellow jersey at the mid-point of the race has a 70% of winning in Paris and their chances only increase as the days go by. Only this is not a usual Tour and Julian Alaphilippe looks vulnerable, he looked likely to crack on a climb and the first fissure came yesterday although it was self-inflicted because he tried to follow Pinot’s attack when if he’d stayed with Geraint Thomas he might have managed his losses better but that’s hindsight and as we’ve seen he’s not a rider to stare at his powermeter or ponder on yesterday. Still he went into the Pyrenees with 1m12s on his closest rival, Geraint Thomas, and came out with 1m35s on Thomas so he continues to confound expectations but with news that he apparently reconned the Pau time trial course ahead of the race, what if he’s had private ambitions of a high finish all along? But his problem is the mountains ahead. Today’s rest day and tomorrow’s sprint stage will do him plenty of good but the three Alpine stages are probably too much, the question is if he’s dropped on, say, the Galibier how much can he limit his losses? He’s got 1m35 to Thomas but seems to be matching him and perhaps his best answer is to track Thomas?
Read this blog’s pre-race preview and Thibaut Pinot‘s challenges were set out: “he can end up on the wrong side of a split in the bunch” and “he seems prone to illness”. The first issue can still occur even if the forecast for Nîmes tomorrow looks
benign rather than a raging Mistral wind like the Mistral could blow (updated 4.00pm); the second is still a concern and apparently Groupama-FDJ soigneurs are wiping down hotel doorhandles and the team bus with bactericide. One third concern was the pressure but Alaphilippe’s carried some of the burden and Pinot seems relaxed in front of the cameras, more fluent than ever. He’s the strongest in the mountains and this should be advantageous but when and where to attack? Probably late on the first Alpine stage à la Tourmalet so he can overhaul Thomas and Kruijswijk, then grind down Alaphilippe after. Easier said than done and if he rode rivals off his wheel on the Prat d’Albis, he only took 18 seconds on Buchmann and Bernal in 7km.
Dave Brailsford must be tearing his hair out or perhaps chewing down his finger nails as for once Ineos don’t seem invincible any more, the fortress has crumbled, the spell broken. All the pre-Tour talk about team leadership felt a stale, questions in search of a story, but now it’s a live topic and there’s still no obvious answer. Geraint Thomas is the closer on GC but Egan Bernal has climbed better over the weekend and seems to have momentum with him. This is hardly a decision for King Solomon, it’s better to have two cards with the team pacing both into place and then letting them race. But it’s a tricky position, if Bernal is to rise up the rankings then he can’t try to slip away in the final moments of a stage and snipe a time bonus, he needs to launch with several kilometres to go and what if this sinks Thomas who is left isolated and loses more time? The team’s having a tougher time but will they sit back and soak it up or will they gamble that finishing third or fourth and winning the white jersey isn’t what they’re spending north of €40 million a year for? Jumbo-Visma look very strong with George Bennett and Laurens De plus and Steven Kruijswijk should find the upcoming long climbs to his liking but of the names cited so far would he sign for a podium place today? It’s hard to see him going solo but everything is so closely packed he can wait to pounce. Emanuel Buchmann is in a similar position if not more, you wonder if Bora-Hansgrohe are plotting Unternehmen Podest or “Operation Podium” because they can plot a route to the podium and if he’s hovering around third going into the weekend then who knows what happens on the final mountain stages but he’s climbing very well and not afraid to attack either, he’s come this far and has a genuine shot at the win because he’s climbing so well.
Elsewhere Simon Yates has two stage wins. Mitchelton-Scott had come with ambitions for Adam Yates but he’s 33 minutes down and Simon’s success is more than a consolation, especially as he can hope take a stage in the Alps too and Daryl Impey has a stage too. The stage wins have been hogged by Jumbo-Visma with four stage wins, Deceuninck-Quickstep and Mitchelton-Scott with three each, two for Lotto-Soudal and one each for Bora-Hansgrohe, Bahrain-Merida and Groupama-FDJ. This leaves 15 teams stage-hunting the remaining six stages and the point here is the majority of the teams have a big interest in sending riders up the road so expect gruelling starts to the stages which will only make the race harder, a self-fulfilling prophecy.
King of the mountains is Tim Wellens but he looks like a prince about to get toppled. He’s got 64 points after scoring points all over the first two weeks while Pinot has taken 50 points over the weekend weekend to move into second place. Given the action for the overall classification this contest has yet to come alive but Wellens and De Gendt should still try while Romain Bardet has started harvesting points too and Simon Yates could aim for this too.
In the points Peter Sagan is comfortable in green with Sonny Colbrelli second in the points competition, Michael Matthews in third and Elia Viviani in fourth 100 points behind. It’s Sagan’s to lose now because Viviani would have to win in Nîmes tomorrow and Paris just to close the gap to Sagan… assuming the Slovak didn’t score a single point either.
Finally what’s next? Tuesday is a large loop around Nîmes with a likely sprint finish, the last chance before Paris. Wednesday sees the race head for the Alps and a stage for the breakaway with a late climb before a fast descent into Gap – but not that descent, it’s the Col de la Sentinelle rather than La Rochette – and there will be a big fight to get in the break. Thursday is the first of three Alpine stages with the long, hard climbs of the Vars, Izoard and Galibier. Friday crosses the Iseran, Europe’s highest paved mountain pass before a slog up to Tignes. Saturday’s stage has three climbs with the last one to Val Thorens 33km long and harder it looks on paper. This much we know, the question is what will happen? There seem to be six possible winners in Alaphilippe, Thomas, Kruijswijk, Pinot, Bernal and Buchmann all within about two minutes. Mikel Landa is further down on GC but still one to watch, Movistar’s free radical is climbing with the best and if he continues his remontada then the risk is could threaten to photobomb the podium picture the others might crave. This time next week it’ll all be over.