Time is running out for Alaphilippe’s rivals

by Matt de Neef

Julian Alaphilippe is finally starting to dream. After 14 days in yellow, after surviving the Pyrenees, after surviving the first big test in the Alps, he’s starting to think that maybe, just maybe, he can win the Tour de France. He’s starting to picture himself as the first French winner since Bernard Hinault way back in 1985.

“We’re all dreaming of that,” Alaphilippe said in Valloire after Thursday’s stage 18. “Even I’m starting to imagine it.”

And well he might. With just two GC stages left he still leads the Tour by 90 seconds. His rivals are running out of time.

On the first rest day, Ineos saw Alaphilippe as little more than a temporary custodian of the maillot jaune. He’s “not necessarily a [title] contender,” said Geraint Thomas. By the second rest day, the tone had shifted. Alaphilippe had gone from being an entertaining first-week aggressor to a problem that needed solving. “We have the conundrum of trying to get rid of Alaphilippe and dealing with the general classification guys,” said team principal Dave Brailsford.

With every day that passes, the Alaphilippe conundrum only grows.

You can understand Ineos’ concern. For all its success at the Tour — six wins in seven years — the British outfit has never been in this position. In every Tour they’ve won, they’ve been leading with two mountain stages to go. It’s always been up to other teams to fight for yellow. Now Ineos is one of those other teams.

And this isn’t the Ineos/Sky of old. They haven’t been able to suffocate the racing at this year’s Tour like they have in the past, putting most of their team on the front in the mountains and shelling all but the very best with an infernal tempo. Ineos’ mountain domestiques — Jonathan Castroviejo, Michal Kwiatkowski, Wout Poels — haven’t looked as infallible as they have previously. At different times, all have tailed off in the mountains earlier than expected. At crucial moments, Thomas and Bernal have found themselves isolated.

Of course it’s telling that, with 18 stages complete, Ineos still has two potential Tour winners, and that those potential winners sit in second and third overall. Despite a relative lack of strength compared to previous editions, Ineos has options that other teams don’t have. They’re options they’ll need to use if they’re to win this Tour.

And let’s be clear: Ineos can absolutely win the 2019 Tour de France. To some, that might still be the most likely outcome. But it will take some positive, aggressive racing for that to happen. It will take more of what Bernal showed on stage 18 when he rode away from the other GC contenders on the Galibier and ultimately gained 32 seconds on Alaphilippe. But it will probably also take a degree of cohesion that Ineos is yet to show. One of Bernal or Thomas will likely have to sacrifice their chances for the other.

Bernal has said throughout the Tour that he’ll ride for Thomas, that he’ll sacrifice his white jersey if that’s what needs to happen. He says that he attacked on stage 18 because Thomas told him to.

But what happens now that Bernal has moved ahead of Thomas on GC? Will Ineos ride for the young Colombian? He would seem to be their best bet of victory. He showed on Thursday that he’s the stronger of the two Ineos leaders uphill, and with the final two Alpine stages also heading well above 2,000m, Bernal’s high-mountain upbringing will almost certainly give him an advantage over Thomas (and everyone else in the GC hunt).

Will Thomas work for his young teammate? His move on the Galibier, with Bernal up the road, was puzzling. Why attack when your teammate is already taking time on the yellow jersey? Perhaps a better option would have been to sit back and mark moves from Ineos’ rivals, rather than instigating a surge of pace that likely cut into Bernal’s advantage.

But when it comes to tackling the Alaphilippe conundrum, Ineos and others will take solace in the fact that the Frenchman was distanced on the Galibier. That he was able to catch back to the group of favourites after summiting alone is testament to his freakish descending abilities. He won’t have the luxury of a downhill finish on stage 19 or stage 20.

Alaphilippe will have two notable climbs to survive on stage 19. The first: the 13km Col d’Iseran which, at a lung-busting 2,751m is the highest point in this year’s Tour. The second: the 7.4km ascent to the finish at Tignes. On the strength of his climbing so far, he should be able to survive stage 19 in yellow. Stage 20 will likely be of greater concern.

On that day, the final climb to Val Thorens is 33.4km long — the longest Tour de France climb in recent memory. If Alaphilippe is still in contention when he starts this climb, it will likely be the biggest challenge of his jersey defence, if not his career.

To win the Tour, Ineos will likely need to drop Alaphilippe on the lower slopes of Val Thorens and take considerable time on him there. It’s not just Ineos in that boat, of course — Steven Kruijswijk, Thibaut Pinot and perhaps even Emanuel Buchmann are all within striking distance — but all eyes are understandably on the British squad. They sit second and third overall, with the pre-race favourite and defending champion, and have won six of the last seven Tours.

Regardless of how the race unfolds over the next two days, the expectation is that Alaphilippe won’t be leading the Tour into the final stage. But of course “Loulou” has been defying expectations for weeks now.

He wasn’t meant to win the stage 13 individual time trial and put time into Thomas there. He wasn’t meant to be in yellow by the second rest day, having extended his lead in the Pyrenees. And he certainly wasn’t supposed to be leading the Tour by 90 seconds with just three stages remaining.

Now, for the first time, it seems like Julian Alaphilippe could win the Tour de France. Time is running out for his rivals to stop that from happening.

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