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With 10 stages in the rearview mirror at what has already been a compelling Tour de France, the action should heat up even more as the race rolls on this week.
The Tour is bound for the Pyrenees over the next few days, and that will mean fireworks out on the road during ‘week two’ – even if the second week technically started a few days ago during an overlong stretch of opening stages without a rest day.
Hopefully, the coming stages will deliver unpredictable racing with storylines to grab our interest into the next rest day and into the final week. Just the same, we’ll try to make a few predictions about how everything could play out in the coming days.
1. Julian Alaphilippe won’t be wearing yellow into the final week.
If you’d predicted Julian Alaphilippe to win this Tour before it all started, your cycling friends might have called you crazy, but heading into ‘week two’ the Frenchman has the fourth shortest odds with most bookmakers to take the overall. It’s a credit to his versatility and to his mental strength that he has made it this far, to the point where people are wondering if he can win the whole thing.
Nonetheless, I’m expecting him to lose the yellow jersey by the second rest day.
His punchy skillset and excellent descending abilities, coupled with his strong time trial, could carry him through the mountainous 12th stage and the stage 13 ITT, which is farther than anyone ever dreamed he’d go. Unfortunately for French fans, Alaphilippe will have a really hard time making it through stages 14 and 15 unscathed.
The stage 14 finishing climb of the Tourmalet is just too hard. It’s too steep, for too long. 19 kilometres at 7.4%, finishing at 2,115 metres, it’s a true GC contender’s climb. Although Alaphilippe has done a brilliant job of playing the part, that kind of sustained suffering is not what he’s built for, at least not yet. Plus, the very next day finishes with three back-to-back-to-back first-category climbs. Even if he survives the Tourmalet, he’ll likely be staring down another day of Ineos mercilessly grinding away at the front. The amazingly explosive Alaphilippe will pine for a more diesel-like engine when all is said and done.
Or, hopefully, he’ll gladly leverage the freedom of dropping out of GC contention as a way to get involved in the polka dot jersey battle. More on that in a moment.
One guy you kind of have to feel bad for in all of this is Deceuninck-Quick-Step’s Enric Mas. Despite his second-place overall finish at last year’s Vuelta a España, he has had practically no fanfare around him in his Tour debut, and that seems partly due to his team downplaying his chances. He’s currently sitting sixth overall, but with Alaphilippe trying to defend yellow – and with reports suggesting Mas is headed to Movistar next year – the promising Spaniard likely won’t get any team support until Alaphilippe loses the jersey.
2. Jumbo-Visma will seriously regret having George Bennett on bottle-ferrying duties when the peloton split on stage 10.
It’s one thing to sacrifice a lieutenant’s GC chances for a team leader in an all-hands-on-deck situation, but it’s another entirely to allow a strong second option to lose all hope of GC contention for no good reason. That’s basically what happened with George Bennett on Monday’s stage 10.
Apparently due to some miscommunication, the Kiwi was ferrying bottles back from the team car just before the peloton split in the crosswinds, and therefore missed out on the front group. Starting the day in fourth overall, he is now over 11 minutes down. The error seems out of character for a team that has otherwise crushed this Tour de France, winning a whopping 40% of the stages so far.
Maybe Bennett’s time loss wouldn’t be such a big deal if Steven Kruijswijk was the bona fide yellow jersey contender the team has to be hoping he is — but I’m not seeing it.
That’s the real crux of this prediction. By the second rest day, Jumbo-Visma is going to be ruing the moment Bennett’s chance to step in went up in smoke because Kruijswijk is going to have a hard time limiting his losses through a power TT and some brutal high-mountain stages.
It’s hard not to root for the guy who was one bad crash away from winning the Giro d’Italia a few years ago, so hopefully he’ll prove this one wrong, but Kruijswijk has not finished on a GC podium in a WorldTour race since June of 2017 at the Tour de Suisse.
Up against the Ineos train on the Tourmalet? Good luck.
Maybe Jumbo-Visma would have a better chance at a Tour podium if Kruijswijk had a teammate alongside him in the top 10 overall to put pressure on the team’s rivals with consecutive attacks in the mountains.
3. The polka-dot jersey battle will be the most interesting storyline in the Pyrenees.
When I hear cycling fans call the Tour de France boring, I always wonder if they just completely ignore the compelling battles for breakaway stage wins and king of the mountains points that are waged 15 minutes before the Sky/Ineos train arrives on a climb. The days ahead, particularly the up-and-down stages 12 and 15, should offer plenty of action in that department.
Tim Wellens (Lotto-Soudal) is currently in the polka dot jersey with teammate Thomas De Gendt second in points, but it’s still anyone’s game. The next few days should really shake up the KOM battle. Both of those Lotto riders should continue to be involved, but expect others to enter the fray as well.
Hopefully Warren Barguil (Arkéa-Samsic) will go all-in for the polka dots rather than trying to hold on for a far-less-interesting top 10 overall. Defending KOM champ Julian Alaphilippe could always get involved if he loses yellow. The incredibly named Xandro Meurisse has done a surprising job of validating Wanty Gobert’s inclusion in this year’s race so far and could continue to shine in the breakaways.
Whoever ends up battling for those points, fans owe them some love, especially considering the fact that the battle for polka dots could be the only interesting thing going if a certain GC super team stifles the attacks of all the overall contenders on the upcoming climbs.
4. Thibaut Pinot will force his way back into the GC conversation.
Just when the hype surrounding Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) at this year’s Tour de France reached a breaking point, so too did the lined-out peloton in the stage 10 crosswinds. Unfortunately for Pinot, he was on the wrong side of the split, and has tumbled to 2:33 down on the overall leaderboard.
Fear not, French fans. Pinot has looked too strong at this year’s race to let his frustrating stage 10 stop him.
Admittedly, the 29-year-old has been maddeningly inconsistent for several years. He has shown flashes of brilliance only to disappear in big moments. That could certainly still happen, but the way he has been riding so far, Pinot sure looks the part of a bona fide GC contender right now.
What’s more, despite that stage 10 time loss, he’s less than a minute and a half behind the Ineos power duo of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal. The big strides he has made in the past few seasons to improve against the clock should allow him to make it through the stage 12 time trial without shipping too much time, and then, well, two minutes really isn’t an insurmountable gap considering the high mountains to come.
It remains to be seen whether Pinot can make it all the way to Paris without suffering the “jour sans” that seems to be divinely mandated for him every year, but he should at least make it to week three in contention for a podium spot.
5. Vincenzo Nibali won’t win that stage people are expecting him to win.
It seems like a lot of people in the cycling universe believe that Nibali will run away with a high-mountain stage now that he has dropped out of the general classification battle, but there are some reasons to be doubtful that it will happen in the next few days.
For one, I actually believe Nibali when he says he didn’t have the legs to follow the best on stage 8. The Giro-Tour double is a huge undertaking, and it would make sense that the 34-year-old Italian is not at 100%.
He doesn’t look strong enough to battle the GC guys right now, and as good as he is, a fatigued Nibali is not just going to do as he pleases in the highly competitive breakaways at the Tour de France either. It’s hard to snag a spot in the early move on a Tour stage, and once you’ve made it in, it stays hard for the rest of the day.
Plus, so much comes down to luck when you’re trying to win from a break. The composition of the group, the battle in the GC group behind, the willingness of fellow escapees to collaborate to chase down solo attacks — there are so many variables beyond the control of each individual in the move. While the “strongest-rider-who-has-dropped-out-of-GC-contention” is always a decent tip on a mountain breakaway stage, it’s still a crap shoot whether he’ll even get the chance to contend in the stage finale.
That said, here’s hoping the always-entertaining Vincenzo Nibali proves this one completely wrong too.
Fortunately, he and the rest of the Tour peloton will get back to racing soon, with plenty of Pyrenean opportunities to keep the action coming.