Today at the Tour: As ever, the Tour de France is predictably unpredictable

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On Thursday morning, Rohan Dennis and Wout van Aert topped the list of Stage 13 favorites. A day later, they’re both out of the race, albeit for very different reasons.

On Thursday afternoon, there were questions about whether Julian Alaphilippe could defend his maillot jaune against Geraint Thomas in a 27km time trial. A day later, Alaphilippe has extended his GC lead by 14 seconds.

The events of the past 24 hours, culminating in Friday’s time trial stage in Pau, have proven as a stark reminder that the Tour de France is predictably unpredictable. It was a fitting end to a week that began Monday with the peloton splintered into pieces in the crosswinds on the run in to Albi.

At the Tour de France, nothing should be assumed, nothing can be taken for granted, and nothing is ever assured.

Expect the unexpected

Dennis left the Tour Thursday under circumstances that remain mysterious. Whatever the reason, the world time-trial champion walked away from the opportunity to compete, and possibly win, on the sport’s largest stage while wearing the rainbow bands. It’s an opportunity that may or may not come again for the 29-year-old Australian, and it’s a judgment call that is likely to follow him throughout the remainder of his career.

That departure opened the door for a variety of riders to vie for the stage win, from GC contenders like Thomas and Richie Porte to TT specialists like Van Aert to opportunists like Alaphilippe and Thomas de Gendt.

Wout van Aert was setting one of the fastest times of the day before crashing just 1.1km from the finish line. Photo: ASO/Pauline Ballet.

With just 1,100 meters remaining, and on pace to set the fastest time to that point, Van Aert clipped a barrier on a fast, sweeping righthand turn and crashed heavily. The 24-year-old Belgian TT champion, who won Stage 10 in Albi and helped drive Jumbo-Visma to victory in the Stage 2 team time trial, was carried off course on a stretcher and taken to a local hospital. His Jumbo-Visma team has described his injury as “a deep flesh wound on his right upper leg” that required surgery, adding that van Aert will remain in the hospital “for a few days.”

De Gendt, the stage winner from a breakaway on Stage 8 into Saint-Étienne, set a new fastest time shortly after van Aert’s crash and watched nervously from the hot seat for the next two hours. His time held until the two final riders on course, Thomas and Alaphilippe, crossed the line. The Lotto-Soudal rider would finish third on the stage, 22 seconds behind Thomas and 36 seconds behind Alaphilippe.

Alaphilippe was fastest at all three intermediate checkpoints, and he sprinted across the finish line to celebrate another stage win, and another day in yellow. It was the second stage win for Alaphilippe at this Tour, and the third time trial victory of his career; his most recent was Stage 3 at the Vuelta a San Juan Internacional in January, on a flat 12km course.

And while Stage 13 in Pau was a perfect course for the punchy climber — short and fast, with a climb, a technical descent, and an 18% pitch ahead of the finishing straight — his victory was nevertheless an unexpected result.

“It’s incredible,” Alaphilippe said. “I’m really happy. Without being pretentious, I knew I could do a good performance on such a course, I told my cousin Franck this morning that I’d do something good, but I didn’t think I could win the stage, especially with such a big gap against Geraint Thomas. The first part suited me, but I surprised myself in the second part of the race. I pushed my limits. With the help of the fans, I gave everything till the line.”

Alaphilippe blazed the 27km course, registering the fastest time across all three intermediate time checks and beating Geraint Thomas by 14 seconds. Photo: ASO/Alex Broadway.

With eight stages remaining, Alaphilippe’s lead has extended to 1:26 over Thomas. Of those eight stages, five will be contested across high mountain roads. Saturday’s stage, while relatively short at 117km, tackles the Col du Soulour before the hors-categorie summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet, a 19km long climb at an average of 7.4 percent.

‘I’m not letting this jersey go easily’

Conventional wisdom would dictate that Alaphilippe will run out of steam, if not on the Tourmalet, if not in the Pyrenees, then a few days later, in the Alps. He did not come to this Tour with the stated goal of contending for the GC, and he’s never raced a Grand Tour to contend for overall victory. Last year he won a pair of mountain stages and the KOM jersey as a stage hunter who was able to pick and choose his efforts; battling for the maillot jaune is something else entirely.

All that said, it’s worth remembering that few predicted Thomas would win last year. Many questioned whether he would hang on to his yellow jersey in the final week, even after his consecutive stage wins in the second week.

“I never set off thinking about pulling off this win,” Alaphilippe said. “Nobody is more surprised than I am. I just wanted to keep the jersey, but to win the stage, on this form, is totally amazing.”

While Alaphilippe may be unproven as Grand Tour contender, and he is unproven in the high mountains as Grand Tour contender, he’s clearly on the best form of anyone in this race. And that counts for a lot.

After his performance Friday in Pau, the idea of Alaphilippe becoming the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985 doesn’t seem quite so unrealistic. Saturday’s stage to the top of the Tourmalet will be Alaphilippe’s ninth day in yellow at this Tour.

Bernard Hinault presented Julian Alaphilippe with a Tissot watch during the maillot jaune presentation following the Frenchman’s TT stage win in Pau. Photo: ASO/Alex Broadway.

“If he carries on like this, he’ll win the Tour,” Thomas said, stating the obvious while acknowledging that the Frenchman must now be viewed as legitimate GC threat. “He’s going incredibly well and is certainly the favorite, or the one to watch, at the moment. But there is a long way to go, and a lot of hard stages to come.”

As for his own ride, the defending Tour champion was characteristically frank. “It wasn’t too bad, it just felt like I was just overheating a bit, so I was trying to deal with that,” he said. “It’s not an excuse, it’s the same for everyone. It was okay, just in that last bit I didn’t really feel it. It was controlled, but in the last 8km or so I felt like when I really wanted to step on it, I didn’t quite have that last five percent.”

Of course this race is more than a two-man battle between Alaphilippe and Thomas. Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) rode a fine time trial and now sits third overall, 2:12 behind Alaphilippe and 46 seconds behind Thomas.

Enric Mas, the 24-year-old Spaniard who took the best young rider’s jersey from Egan Bernal, sits fourth overall, 2:44 behind his Deceuninck-Quick-Step teammate, and 1:18 behind Thomas. He leads Bernal, who sits fifth overall, by just eight seconds.

“We can play different cards from now on,” Mas said. “It is a big advantage to have two guys in the top five of the GC. As for the yellow jersey, our aim is to defend it for as long as possible. I think Julian can keep the yellow jersey until Paris. He has lost it once and taken it back. That shows how good he is on this Tour de France.”

And while it would be foolish to write Bernal out of the GC discussion, it’s also clear that the question of leadership at Ineos has been, at least for the moment, been answered. After 13 stages, Thomas leads Bernal by 1:26, and is well positioned to take the yellow jersey should Alaphilippe crack in the mountains.

Green jersey wearer Peter Sagan knows something about what Alaphilippe can do when it matters. He and Alaphilippe had an epic battle at the 2015 Amgen Tour of California, where Sagan won the Stage 6 time trial, Alaphilippe won the Stage 7 finish atop Mount Baldy, and Sagan won the overall on the final stage by time bonuses taken in the sprint finish. Alaphilippe returned the following year to win the Amgen Tour, 21 seconds ahead of Rohan Dennis.

“Of course Alaphilippe can try and win the Tour de France,” Sagan said. “The race is only starting, but I for one am crossing fingers for him. He is surprising everybody, and can continue to do so.”

Is this the face of the 2019 Tour de France champion? We’ll find out soon. Photo: ASO/Thomas Maheux.

Belgian Tim Wellens, who will start his eleventh stage in the polka-dot jersey as leader of the KOM competition, also believes Alaphilippe should be considered a legitimate threat to win the Tour.

“It’s very impressive to see Alaphilippe win the time trial,” Wellens said. “Geraint Thomas is more of a TT specialist than him. The mountains above 2000 meters will be something different, but from now on, it’s going to be hard for anyone to take the yellow jersey from him. He looks very fresh, as if he hadn’t suffered much yet. He’s got a good chance to win the Tour.”

Thus far, Alaphilippe has handled the 20-minute effort to la Planche des Belles Filles and the 35-minute test in Pau. Can he handle an hourlong climb in the high mountains? Who knows?

Alaphilippe openly admitted that he doesn’t, while stressing that Mas is still the team’s GC leader. “It’s going to be difficult on the Tourmalet, but I’m not letting this jersey go easily,” he said. “I can promise you that.”

All that’s sure is that nothing should be assumed. Nothing can be taken for granted. We’ll find out tomorrow. Or perhaps the next day. Or perhaps in Paris.

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