If you were to take a quick glance at the overall standings in the Tour de France after Stage 15, then flip back to the standings after yesterday’s stage, you might be tempted to conclude that nothing much happened on today’s difficult second straight day in the Pyrenees. After all Julian Alaphilippe still maintains a comfortable lead, Geraint Thomas is still in second, Steven Kruijswijk in third.
But the standings only tell a portion of the drama that unfolded across four classified climbs on today’s stage.
Here’s a stab at the rest:
The stage began with a series of small breakaways, each of which was reeled in and reabsorbed. After much negotiation, an enormous, almost-30-strong group made it away, containing a number of overall contenders whom the main overall contenders likely deemed no longer actually in contention for the overall: the likes of Nairo Quintana, Romain Bardet, Dan Martin, and Vincenzo Nibali. Also in the pack were some strong stage hunters: Simon Yates, Pello Bilbao, Nicolas Roche, Jesus Herrada, Michael Woods, etc. Woods was first over the first climb, Bardet first over the next.
Three minutes back on the road, things were starting to get sweaty in the group of favorites. All were eager to wear out Alaphilippe, and Alaphilippe’s team was eager to limit the advantage of Quintana up in the breakaway. The pressure put Alaphilippe’s own supposed team leader, Enric Mas, out the back. It shed Adam Yates, too.
At almost the same time that Mikel Landa accelerated off the front of that group, Adam’s brother Simon was leaving the breakaway group up the road, in pursuit of a lone leader, Simon Geschke, and for the next 30 kilometers or so, the race for the stage victory would look like a long-distance, two-man correspondence between Yates and Landa, separated by about a minute but framed in split-screen.
Meanwhile, the subtle battle between the overall contenders was lighting up as they reached the final climb: the first-category summit finish to Foix. With 17 kilometers still to ride, things were already looking difficult for race leader Alaphilippe. Because he didn’t enter this year’s Tour with the intention of winning it outright, his team – unlike those of his rivals – was never built around the idea of riding him up the high mountains. And so with 45 minutes left to climb, he found himself without a teammate in sight, dying of thirst, dropping to the back of the pack himself to visit his team car for advice and refreshments.
It was the signal his rivals were waiting for. Yesterday’s stage winner Thibaut Pinot went to the front of the favorites group with lieutenant David Gaudu and set a difficult pace that not only started to shed other favorites but also began to catch and drop the remnants of the once-mighty breakaway. Rigoberto Uran and Warren Barguil went off the back. Woods, Martin, Quintana, and Bardet all appeared like specks on the horizon and quickly became blips in the rear-view.
Gaudu blew, and Pinot made a move that dropped second-placed Geraint Thomas. He made another that shook Alaphilippe. He made a third that distanced Egan Bernal, who had only barely been hanging on.
Soon Pinot was bridging to Mikel Landa, leaving Alaphilippe in no man’s land, then back in the group with Thomas, Kruijswijk and Alejandro Valverde. Finally, he was shed from that group, too, several seconds adrift, his teeth grit in pain.
Then, for a moment, the French television cameras remembered Simon Yates, who had maintained such a comfortable lead that he was able to slow-pedal the final 100 meters, celebrating his second stage win of the Tour by underlining the Mitchelton-Scott logo on his chest and casting his arms in the air.
But the real drama was behind. Pinot’s relentless attacks had done serious damage. He and Landa arrived at the line 33 seconds behind Yates. Bernal and a surprisingly strong Emanuel Buchmann were 18 seconds back. Geraint Thomas came home another 30 seconds behind (and would later vent to reporters that he’d had the strength to push on after Pinot but didn’t want to drag Alaphilippe up to Bernal). The yellow jersey would arrive in 11th place, having conceded 29 seconds to Thomas and one minute and 16 seconds to Pinot.
So, yeah, the standings look about the same. But everything has begun to change. Alaphilippe retains the yellow jersey, but today he finally found himself isolated and vulnerable. Thomas remains in second, but he’s suddenly hamstrung by the team’s complicated two-pronged strategy. And Pinot is looking like he’s stronger than everyone else in the Tour right now. But he’ll have to spend the tomorrow’s rest day thinking not just about how to crack Alaphilippe and split Thomas and Bernal, but also what to do with the silent figures of Kruijswijk and Buchmann, both of whom remain within two minutes of the lead.
Past Tours have felt like a formality at this point in the race. This one remains a six-man round of speed chess.
|3||Mikel Landa Meana||+00:00:33|
|5||Egan Arley Bernal Gomez||+00:00:51|
|5||Egan Arley Bernal Gomez||+00:02:02|
|7||Mikel Landa Meana||+00:04:54|
|10||Rigoberto Uran Uran||+00:05:33|