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COL DU TOURMALET, France (CT) – On the slopes of the Tourmalet, on the first serious mountain stage, the Tour de France was turned on its head.
The 117.5km stage 14 route brought the race up from Tarbes, over the Col du Soulor, and finally, to a summit finish atop one of cycling’s great climbs. The winners? A rapturous host nation, mostly, thanks to Thibaut Pinot’s stunning stage win and Julian Alaphilippe’s phenomenal defence of his yellow jersey. The losers? A broad swathe of GC contenders – including, most significantly, defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas.
A Grand Tour is raced over weeks, but defined by instants. A split second at the Tour can change a rider’s race, and 10 kilometres can turn the entire thing upside down. Case in point: the last 10 kilometres of the Tourmalet, and the damage it did to the GC hopes of many pre-race favourites.
The team leaders start cracking on the lower slopes. Under the 10km-to-go banner, Adam Yates is definitively in trouble, adrift from the race on the wheels of two teammates. Romain Bardet is having an even worse time of it, his horror Tour deteriorating further with each pedal stroke. Dan Martin (UAE-Emirates) got unhitched 3km ago, and 2017 Vuelta winner Fabio Aru is now losing contact too. Vincenzo Nibali and Ilnur Zakarin, aggressors in the early breakaway, are somewhere down the mountain, done for the day.
Toward the back of the rapidly shrinking peloton, Alaphilippe sits at Thomas’ shoulder, holding his pace.
For the first time in years, Ineos is not in control. The team’s domestiques, Jonathan Castroviejo and Dylan van Baarle, rode until they couldn’t hold the pace any longer; soon after, Wout Poels joined them off the back. For most of the stage’s last 10km, Egan Bernal and Thomas are fending for themselves. Ineos has frequently been criticised for stifling the Tour de France, but today, their grip is loosened.
At the front, Movistar are drilling it, just as they did on the Col du Soulor. It’s a bold play that backfires when Nairo Quintana, too, drops off the back, his face an inscrutable mask even in defeat. He’ll go on to lose 3:29 on the stage, dropping to 14th overall. “It’s clear that I haven’t had a good day,” he tells reporters after the finish. “Now we are moving forward with Mikel [Landa] and Alejandro [Valverde]. They are ahead in the general classification and we have to support them.”
7.4km to go. A nervous murmur spreads through the crowd at the top of the Tourmalet as Alaphilippe drifts to the back of the peloton, briefly looking like he might be fatigued. He holds the wheel, just, perhaps buoyed by the prayers of a home crowd that wants to believe.
200m later, Pinot’s Groupama-FDJ squad moves to the front. In the hot sunlight at the summit of the Tourmalet, murmurs turn to cheers. Down the road, the peloton moves through the cloud pooling below.
A couple of kilometres later, Richie Porte drops off the back. 100m later, Enric Mas, second at last year’s Vuelta, leader of the best young rider competition, and Alaphilippe’s sole remaining teammate, is gone too.
And still, Alaphilippe dances his way on, climbing out of the saddle.
At 1km to go, unable to follow an acceleration, Thomas allows a gap to open up. His rivals sensing blood, the pace rises further. The winner will come from this group of six. Everyone else is now riding to limit their losses.
The final few hundred metres of the Tourmalet go something like this: toward a corner with an enormous craggy mountain looming over it. A steep hairpin back toward the finish line. On the right, a deep pack of spectators line the barriers to the top. Above them, a grassy dome makes a natural amphitheatre, with the road the stage. Pinot makes a dig. The maillot jaune shakes the lactic acid from his legs, kicks, and tries to follow the acceleration.
The mountain erupts. Soon after, a jubilant Pinot crosses the line first, pumping his fist.
Alaphilippe makes it a French one-two, and extends his lead in the Tour de France on the stage he was supposed to lose it. 36 seconds later, Thomas finishes eighth on the stage, shipping time to Bernal, Steven Kruijswijk, Emmanuel Buchmann, Landa and Rigoberto Uran.
A pale, sweaty Thomas rolls over the top, pulls up behind the anti-doping trailer and jumps on a trainer to begin his cool-down. Across the road from him, thousands of fans cheer for Alaphilippe and Pinot, breaking into chants during the presentations. Thibaut, Thibaut, Thibaut.
Thomas looks over the road, up at the crowd, and runs a black towel across his dripping face. “I just [felt] quite weak,” Thomas told press later. “At the end I knew I had to try to pace it. It was a tough day out there.”
Alaphilippe, who won stage 13’s time trial and climbed with the best in the world today, has said that every day he spends in yellow is “just a bonus”. A day ago, he said that Enric Mas was Deceuninck-QuickStep’s team leader. Today, that matter seems to have shifted. Can he win this thing? “The nearer we get to Paris, the more I will ask myself this question,” he said today.
This spellbinding Tour de France will continue to unfold on stage 15, over four categorised climbs with a summit finish on Prat d’Albis. Alaphilippe might crack; Thomas may return. Those are concerns for later. For now, followers of the sport have something else to savour: 10 kilometres on the Tourmalet that turned the Tour on its head.