- After Stage 14, the Tour de France is wide open.
- Returning champion Geraint Thomas faltered while stage winner Thibaut Pinot and race leader Julian Alaphillipe excelled.
- Steven Kruijswijk, Emanuel Buchmann, and Thomas’s teammate Egan Bernal are also in the running for the final victory.
On a day when many expected the powerful Ineos team to finally take control of the 2019 Tour de France, something else happened. The race instead blew wide open on Stage 14, and long-suffering French fans began to seriously consider a possibility they’d not seen for 34 years: a home-country champion. What’s more, they have not just one rider to root for, but two.
In recent years, Tour organizers have back-weighted the hardest climbs in an attempt to preserve the suspense for the race’s final week. Despite those efforts, Ineos, formerly Team Sky, often succeeded in squeezing the life out of the race, and the hopes out of challengers, with a dominant performance in the mountains that all but cut off opportunities to attack.
It won the team six Tours in seven years by three different riders, and we fully expected them to pull it off again. But on Saturday, that characteristic power deserted them and, for once, the final group of contenders wasn’t dominated by Ineos.
Rivals quickly sensed an opportunity. On the final climb up the legendary Col du Tourmalet, both Jumbo–Visma and Groupama–FDJ surged to the front, with riders forcing the pace for respective team leaders Steven Kruijswijk and Thibaut Pinot. It was Ineos who cracked this time—specifically, defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas, who slipped slightly off the pace in the last 1,500 meters.
Pinot was first to take advantage, jumping off the front in the last few hundred meters to take the stage win. But Kruijswijk and race leader Julian Alaphilippe were seconds behind. The attacks exposed Ineos’s own tactical decisions: Egan Bernal, the young Colombian talent and pre-race favorite, didn’t wait for Thomas. The team likely told him to ride his own race, as a backup option in case of exactly what befell Thomas.
The result: a Tour in glorious disarray, with no dominant team or rider and four mountain stages to come, including Sunday’s 185K march across four Pyrenean summits. And as the slate of possible winners shrinks in number, it becomes more probable for any remaining contenders to claim final victory in Paris.
There’s a French leader, Alaphilippe, already enjoying one of the finest seasons by a men’s pro in recent memory: 12 wins, including Milan–San Remo, and two Tour stages, plus 10 days in the yellow jersey. He’s an explosive rider and one-day Classics specialist whom many thought would struggle on the long drag up the Tourmalet.
Instead, Alaphilippe kept pace as well as any of the pure climbers. With each day he stays in yellow, he becomes more of a threat to hold it all the way to Paris. And he enjoys at least a two-minute lead to his challengers. But he’s also going deeper into physical and mental territory he’s never before inhabited. As French hopes grow, so does the pressure.
Pinot, his countryman, is rising fast and looking like the Tour’s best climber. He sees nothing but opportunity in the days ahead, with three more summit finishes and one of the strongest lieutenants in the race in young compatriot David Gaudu.
Bernal, nominally still behind Thomas on overall time, looks the stronger of the two in the mountains. Ineos would be smart to give him free rein to ride his own race. Thomas himself, who may simply have had an off-form day, could rebound strongly in the stages to come. Or his weakness on Saturday could presage a slow fade.
There’s Emanuel Buchmann, the young German no one is talking about because he rides for the team of Peter Sagan and has never finished higher than 12th in a Grand Tour. He’ll likely follow wheels in an effort to move up the General Classification, and if a podium is in reach we may see an attack.
But the rider everyone should fear most is Kruijswijk, who sits third overall and has ridden a consistently strong and mistake-free race. His largest time loss occurred on Stage 6’s steep finish on La Planche des Belles Filles, a shorter, explosive climb of the sort we won’t see again this Tour. He’s on the strongest team, with two top-tier climbers to support him in George Bennett and Laurens de Plus. If Thomas’s form fades, Kruijswijk is best-positioned to take advantage—if and when Alaphilippe finally reaches the limit of his abilities.
Now, Alaphilippe’s tactics should turn to thoughts of pure defense. Can he hold the jersey? For how long? With Enric Mas dropping down the standings on Saturday, Deceuninck–Quick Step will marshal all its resources at Alaphilippe’s disposal. It wouldn’t be out of character for Alaphilippe, all panache and daring, to put in sharp attacks on stage finales in an attempt to further pad his lead. But he may also choose to race more defensively.
Beyond the unknowable of whether Alaphilippe will run out of gas, there are three key factors to the race. First, Ineos’s tactics. Thomas and Bernal will continue to ride their parallel races. That pulls away from the team’s already-reduced strength, but preserves its options. Thomas wants to prove he had one bad day and will wait for Alaphilippe to crack; Bernal will follow wheels and make the occasional late-stage attack.
Second, how does Kruijswijk use what is clearly the strongest team in the race? Likely, he’ll follow the same plan as today: try to burn out Alaphilippe and gap Thomas. He could win without ever putting in a real attack. But Jumbo also benefited from work by Movistar early on the Tourmalet, and with that team’s GC hopes blowing up, they can’t be counted on to work like that again. Can Jumbo find other alliances?
Finally, the wild card: Pinot. He’s far enough behind (3:12) that he must attack to gain time. How and when those attacks come, and what the other five riders can do to respond, might be the driving factor in sorting out the final standings.
Six riders, five teams, and all with different tactics to play. No one knows yet how the 2019 Tour will turn out. But the final week of racing has the potential to be some of the most exciting in ages—maybe since the last time a French rider had a real shot to win.
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