Today at the Tour: Six riders, one yellow jersey

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With 15 stages completed, and six stages remaining, one thing is certain — no one knows who will win this Tour de France. And we should all be thankful for that.

As the most important race in pro cycling, the Tour de France has taken on such significance that it’s largely been targeted and controlled by just a few powerhouse teams over the past 30 years. Miguel Indurain’s Banesto squad won five straight Tours in the early 1990s. Lance Armstrong’s US Postal Service/Discovery Channel team won seven straight in the early 2000s. Team Sky has won six of seven editions, with three different riders, across the current decade. Combined, that’s just three teams winning 18 of 29 editions.

And while Team Ineos, the rebranded Team Sky squad, may well pull off another victory when the race ends this coming weekend, as the traveling circus paused Monday for its second rest day, there were still six riders in contention for the overall victory. Everything is still to play for, and nothing is assured. It’s the most open race since 2011, when Australian Cadel Evans won by 1:34 ahead of Andy Schleck.

Frenchman Thomas Voeckler finished an unexpected fourth that year after spending 10 days in yellow, losing the maillot jaune in the Alps — a situation that sounds oddly familiar this time around.

Voeckler took the maillot jaune by riding into a three-man breakaway on Stage 4 that took four minutes on the main GC favorites. This year, it’s been Julian Alaphilippe giving the home nation a dream to follow. He took hold of the maillot jaune in a very different manner — by scooping up bits of time with audacious late-race attacks, riding above expectations in the mountains and against the clock, and picking up bonus seconds along the way.

Alaphilippe was well positioned for yellow after Deceuninck-Quick Step rode a strong team time trial on Stage 2. The following day he took 26 seconds from the GC contenders at Epernay; he took another 20 seconds from all but Thibaut Pinot at Saint-Etienne on Stage 8. He surprised everyone, including himself, by winning the Stage 13 time trial in Pau, and he then added to his lead by finishing second atop the Tourmalet on Stage 14. His overall advantage took a hit atop the Prat d’Albis on Sunday, when Alaphilippe showed his first signs of fatigue, however he still leads Geraint Thomas by 1:35.

After 15 stages, there are six riders separated by 134 seconds, and one of them — the race leader — admits he’s “hanging on by a thread.” Meanwhile, Team Ineos has two riders in the top five, including the defending champion. So, advantage Ineos, right? Not exactly.

The Ineos team at this year’s Tour de France is not the same team we’ve seen in years past. It’s not just the absence of Chris Froome — it’s the entire squad. Thomas and Bernal have both been subpar, by their own admission, while their support in the mountains has been curiously lacking. On the race’s three summit finishes thus far, super-domestiques Wout Poels, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Jonathan Castroviejo have all lost contact well before the fireworks began.

Froome’s absence — and the collective fallibility of Team Ineos — has been just one of several major factors that has made this race so unconventional and unpredictable.

The route has been another factor. Just one individual time trial — and a relatively short one at 27km — and no major summits until Stage 14 have kept the race open. Bonus time along the route has changed the dynamics of stage finishes, and how penultimate climbs are ridden.

And then there was the crosswind carnage on Stage 10, which splintered the peloton and saw five major GC contenders lose 1:40 to their rivals.

And finally there has been Alaphilippe, the stage-hunting opportunist who refuses to give up the maillot jaune.

Ineos manager Dave Brailsford, who suggested on the race’s last rest day that Alaphilippe was not a true threat to the overall, admitted Monday that the Frenchman has redefined the battle for the general classification.

“Alaphilippe has gained time on everyone with great style,” Brailsford said. “His presence has changed the way all the other teams are riding too, not just us. He is the biggest change to the Tour, he’s created a ripple effect. Because of him we are forced to react to the situation minute by minute.

“We have the conundrum of trying to get rid of Alaphilippe and dealing with the general classification guys. It’s both exciting on one level and on another like a game of chess. This predicament is making the whole race very different.”

While Ineos has been lacking in the mountains, Jumbo-Visma has not. On both summit finishes in the Pyrenees, team leader Steven Kruijswijk has had teammates Laurens de Plus and George Bennett by his side or setting a hard tempo. Kruijswijk, who finished fifth last year, is renowned for riding well in the final week of a Grand Tour, and while he may or may not have what it takes to secure the maillot jaune, the way he and his teammates are riding, he looks almost certain to stand on the podium in Paris.

And then there’s Emanuel Buchmann, the Bora-Hansgrohe rider who is quietly riding his way into podium position. The 26-year-old German hasn’t finished outside of the top 10 in a stage race this season, finishing third overall at both the Tour of the Basque Country, in April, and Critérium du Dauphiné, in June. His best stage finishes at the Tour thus far were fourth on the Tourmalet, and fourth again at Prat d’Albis. At the finish on Sunday, he said he’s got the best legs of his career at this Tour.

Below I’ve taken a close look at each of the six riders who are within reach of the yellow jersey, analyzing their strengths and weaknesses, and what they need to do to win this Tour. Of course there are also dangerous riders lurking further down the general classification who might spring a surprise — riders like Mikel Landa, Jakob Fuglsang, Rigoberto Uran, and Richie Porte — but none look to be in a realistic position to win the race.

When analyzing the general classification as it stands, it’s also worth considering what the GC might look like should Alaphilippe crack and fall out of the podium fight. It’s entirely possible that once he loses his grip on the jersey, he’ll fall out of the top 10. Outside of Alaphilippe’s lead, the next five riders on GC are separated by just 39 seconds.

For a more complete picture of the relative strength of each rider, it’s also a worthwhile exercise to consider what the GC would look like had Pinot not missed the split in the crosswinds on Stage 10 into Albi. Of course it’s impossible to know if Pinot would have raced as aggressively in the Pyrenees had he not lost that time, but considering the Frenchman backed it up and delivered the goods on the Tourmalet and again at Prat d’Albis, let’s entertain what the race might look like if Pinot had finished alongside the five others in Albi. While riding in the crosswinds is every bit as much a part of bike racing as climbing and time trialing, Pinot’s current GC position is not indicative of Pinot’s form or what he’s capable of in the final week.

And what a final week it is shaping up to be. After two relatively flat transition days, the race moves back into the mountains on Thursday with three stages in the Alps — two summit finishes, and each with a summit over 2,000 meters. The GC battle closes out with Saturday’s penultimate stage finishing on the 33km climb to Val Thorens, which has a total elevation gain of 4,450 meters.

Oh, and then there’s the weather. On Tuesday’s flat loop around Nimes, temperatures of 40 degrees Celsius (over 100 Fahrenheit) are expected. Heat, as the scientists say, is a catalyst. As heart rates elevate and hydration becomes an issue, any rider who is struggling with fatigue will be that much more likely to succumb as the temperatures rise.

So who will win the Tour? Who knows? Ineos has the GC options. Pinot has the legs. Kruijswijk has the best support in the mountains. Alaphilippe still has a healthy lead. Buchmann has the cloak of invisibility. One of these riders will win the race — but which one?

Based on what we saw in the Pyrenees, and each rider’s previous Grand Tour history, a realistic prediction would be that Thomas, Kruijswijk, and Pinot will stand on the final podium in Paris. Alaphilippe will likely tumble out of podium position, just as Voeckler did in 2011, while Bernal will likely be tasked to ride for Thomas. Buchmann is the wildcard in this equation — which is probably just as he likes it.

May the best man win.

Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick-Step)

GC position: 1st overall, 1:35 ahead of Geraint Thomas
GC position without Alaphilippe: N/A
GC position without Stage 10 crosswinds: 1st overall, 0:10 ahead of Pinot
Strengths: No pressure. He’s already won two stages and spent 10 days in yellow; everything else is icing on the cake.
Weaknesses: Exhaustion. Alaphilippe has never contended for a Grand Tour victory, and he did not prepare specifically for the task at this Tour. He showed his first signs of weakness on the climb up Prat d’Albis, where he lost 1:16 to Pinot and 27 seconds to Thomas. In his post-race interview, he was clearly hypoxic. Also, his team was not built to defend the maillot jaune. Unless Enric Mas turns things around, Alaphilippe will be isolated on the final climb of every stage for the rest of the Tour.
How he can win: Hang in there. Stay calm. Race defensively. Limit losses.
What he says: “I was never a favorite and the hardest is yet to come. One weakness on a mountain over 15 or 20 kilometers and it’s all over. The climb up Val Thorens will be terrible right up to the summit. When I look at the profile of these stages in the Alps, I tell myself that my jersey is hanging by a thread. We don’t have the team to win the Tour.”

Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos)

GC position: 2nd overall, at 1:35
GC position without Alaphilippe: 1st overall, leading Pinot by 0:15
GC position without Stage 10 crosswinds: 3rd overall, at 1:35 to Alaphilippe
Strengths: He’s the defending champion, racing his 14th Grand Tour. Remove Alaphilippe from the conversation and he’s wearing yellow. His teammate, Egan Bernal, is in fifth overall, and can serve in a support or spoiler role.
Weaknesses: He struggled on both summit finishes in the Pyrenees.
How he can win: First, Ineos needs to help eliminate Alaphilippe. Next, Thomas needs to minimize his losses in the mountains. Using Bernal to sit on GC attacks could be effective for Team Ineos; it could also backfire spectacularly for Thomas, if he cannot, or will not, chase those moves down. Assuming Alaphilippe cracks, Thomas can race defensively, with a close eye on Kruijswijk and Pinot.
What he says: “We’re not in yellow and we’re not riding on the front all day every day. There’s more than one way to win the Tour. This situation is completely different. We don’t have to pull when there’s other teams who want to do it as well. We’re in a super strong position. Everyone has ups and downs. It’s how you deal with that and I’m confident we’re all in great shape and in a great position. I’m looking forward to some big Alpine climbs.”

Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma)

GC position: 3rd overall, at 1:47
GC position without Alaphilippe: 2nd overall, at 0:12 behind Thomas
GC position without Stage 10 crosswinds: 4th overall, at 1:47 to Alaphilippe
Strengths: Consistency. Proven to be strong in the final week of a Grand Tour. Support in the mountains.
Weaknesses: Kruijswijk is a diesel engine; he doesn’t respond well to sharp attacks. That may actually turn into a strength at high elevation, however, where going too deep is a risky endeavor.
How he can win: Keep chiseling away. Make no mistakes. Look for opportunities.
What he says: “The Alps are coming, and you should never rule out any of the other riders in the top six on GC; I think everybody is still in contention for winning the Tour. All three of these mountain stages are quite hard and provide opportunities. But I have to say the further you go into the race, the more fatigue will play a more important role, the final climb is 31km long, it’s a horrible climb. I think, on the morning of that stage, if you look at the GC and it is still not decided, we will see a great race in the afternoon. As long as the yellow jersey is within sight, I’ll go for that.”

Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ)

GC position: 4th overall, at 1:50
GC position without Alaphilippe: 3rd overall, at 0:15 behind Thomas
GC position without Stage 10 crosswinds: 2nd overall, at 0:10 behind Alaphilippe
Strengths: Form. Riding on anger. Super-domestique David Gaudu. Proven track record in Grand Tours.
Weaknesses: Heat is his kryptonite, and according to weather forecasts, the final week looks to be a scorcher.
How he can win: Attack. Attack. Attack. Pinot has proven to be the best climber in this race, but he has a lot of ground to make up. It’s not going to happen all at once, but rather across each summit finish.
What he says: “I’m on the right track now, I can be up there. I’m keeping my feet on the ground. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in racing, it’s that things can change very fast. That’s why I’m not getting over excited. When you’re in form, you can get through the heat. I’m not scared of anybody.”

Egan Bernal (Team Ineos)

GC position: 5th overall, at 2:02
GC position without Alaphilippe: 4th overall, at 0:27 behind Thomas
GC position without Stage 10 crosswinds: 5th overall, at 2:02 behind Alaphilippe
Strengths: Long climbs at high altitude.
Weaknesses: Unproven at three weeks as a Grand Tour contender.
How he can win: A long-range attack in the mountains, assuming Thomas falters.
What he says: “Our main leader is [Thomas] and we are going to support him. I’m only 22 and it’s a dream for me to race with the world’s best cyclists. There are five or six riders who can win the Tour and it’s very unlikely that I’ll be the one. Everything indicates that I can win the white jersey if I don’t have any crisis. However, the most important thing is to win the yellow jersey. If at some stage I have to sacrifice myself for Geraint Thomas to win the Tour, even at the cost of the white jersey, I’ll do it.”

Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe)

GC position: 6th overall, at 2:14
GC position without Alaphilippe: 5th overall, at 0:39 behind Thomas
GC position without Stage 10 crosswinds: 6th overall, at 2:14 behind Alaphilippe
Strengths: Form. Lack of expectations.
Weaknesses: Like Bernal, Buchmann is unproven at three weeks as a Grand Tour contender. He’s never finished higher than 15th at the Tour.
How he can win: Attack. Like Pinot, Buchmann is climbing well, but he has a lot of ground to make up on the others. He’ll need to attack and hope that riders like Thomas, Kruijswijk, and Pinot watch one another.
What he says: “The final week will be decisive, but in my view, this Tour de France is more open than the previous years because there isn’t any big team strong enough to have total control of the race. Right now, Pinot seems to be the strongest, and is flanked by a fairly strong team, so he could be the favorite but we still have one important week ahead of us.”

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