The Tourmalet tests the Tour, the French pass the test

Date
July 20, 2019

There was a moment in Stage 14 when it appeared that surely the Tour de France was over. The contenders for overall victory – in an edition that’s missing big favorites like Chris Froome and Tom Dumoulin – have up until this point simply been staying safe, trying not to lose any time in crashes or crosswinds, or on the lesser climbs that have punctuated the Tour so far. The sole focus of these first two weeks has been just to get to today – the first real mountain stage, the beginning of a whole mountainous final week – and then see what happens.

What happened was that every would-be contender not in an Ineos or Movistar jersey began to fall away. As usual. Typical Tour de France.

First it was Romain Bardet, the onetime French hope, who lost contact with his rivals on the first of the day’s two major climbs. Then Adam Yates, who managed to join back up with the other favorites on the valley floor between the first climb and the final summit of the dreaded Col du Tourmalet, but who quickly faded again on those slopes. Soon Dan Martin was yo-yo-ing off the back of the bunch. Their Tour? Over.

So. We’d been fooling ourselves all along, thinking this was the most wide-open Tour in recent history, believing even one of these yahoos could end up donning the yellow jersey in Paris, when in reality, it’s going to come down – once again – to Chris Froome’s race-smothering Team Ineos. At any moment, race leader Julian Alaphilippe would falter, as expected, and the overall classification would settle into its natural, predictable state.

Team Movistar had led the way onto the climb of the Tourmalet, four or five riders strong, but they were apparently too strong. Their leader, Nairo Quintana, slipped off the back of the bunch early on the climb, unable to keep the pace that his colleagues had been setting to try to melt his rivals. Suddenly there wasn’t a blue jersey in sight as the group of contenders continued up the mountain.

Taking advantage of the chaos, Warren Barguil set off on his own but was reeled in after a couple of kilometers. Then Thibaut Pinot put in a little acceleration, but he too was reeled in by the pack, which still contained a handful of Ineos riders.

But that’s when things started to look a little funny. Ineos lieutenant Michal Kwiatkowski had long since gone into the red, and soon Wout Poels, too, had vanished, leaving only the team’s two leaders, Egan Bernal and defending champion Geraint Thomas, in the group of contenders. Meanwhile it was the Jumbo-Visma team of Steven Kruijswijk setting the tempo. And Julian Alaphilippe was still hanging with the serious climbers!

With a kilometer-and-a-half to go, Jumbo-Visma’s pace was starting to hurt everyone. Jakob Fuglsang lost contact. Barguil was dropped. Then Rigoberto Uran. And then the turning point: Emanuel Buchmann went to the front of the remaining group and put in a dig that quite suddenly distanced Thomas, the defending champion, the linchpin of the unstoppable Team Ineos. And still Alaphilippe raced on!

The punishing final kilometer of the Tourmalet was contested by a group of just six riders: Alaphilippe, Bernal, Buchmann, Kruijswijk, Pinot, and Mikel Landa. Thomas was losing yet more time behind, his face a look of pained determination. And Pinot sensed his opportunity. The Frenchman has been in stellar form on this Tour. He took precious seconds on a raid with Alaphilippe on Stage 3. He lost almost two minutes in the crosswinds on Stage 10, but he rode a strong time trial yesterday and jumped back up into seventh place. Now his biggest rival was suffering, and victory atop his home country’s most famous climb was within sight.

Pinot launched his final attack with about 150 meters to go, on a slope of over nine percent. The gap was slow to widen, at first, but it grew with the gradient. Landa ground his gears at the back of the small group, and Alaphilippe – looking around at the others – appeared for a moment to consider going after his compatriot, but he reconsidered. After all, just being in the final selection was accomplishment enough. Not only would had he not lost time, but he would increase his advantage over everyone down the mountain. No sense wasting precious energy on another stage win.

Thibaut Pinot crossed the line first, and then the clock began to toll for everyone else who had arrived in Brussels earlier this month to win the Tour de France. Alaphilippe and company rolled across the line over the next 10 seconds. But Uran had lost 30 seconds. Geraint Thomas had lost 36. Fuglsang nearly a minute. Richie Porte over two. Quintana almost three-and-a-half. Adam Yates almost seven!

Losing that kind of time in the modern Tour de France usually costs you the race. Chris Froome lost just a minute to his rivals on the ninth stage of last year’s Tour, and he never clawed it back.

But this Tour is not over. Far from spelling the virtual end of the competition between these riders – still a week before Paris – the way the race shook out on the Tourmalet almost seems to suggest the opposite. Had Team Ineos simply marched up the mountain and installed Thomas in the yellow jersey, we might well tune out until the Champs-Elysées. But the fact was that everyone suffered today. Everyone is hurting. Everyone is tired. Everyone seems capable of losing whole minutes at a time. Today Pinot, Alaphilippe, Kruijswijk and Bernal seemed the strongest. On tomorrow’s brutal final day in the Pyrenees, all four could blow their gaskets, and Thomas and Yates and Quintana could come bouncing back. And we haven’t even turned in the direction of the Alps yet!

This Tour de France has been animated, energetic, unpredictable. For about an hour today, it looked like it was about to go back on script, return to its regularly scheduled programming. But from the top of the Tourmalet today, the view ahead is still stormy indeed.

Stage Results

Place Rider Time
1 Thibaut Pinot 03:10:20
2 Julian Alaphilippe +00:00:06
3 Steven Kruijswijk +00:00:06
4 Emanuel Buchmann +00:00:08
5 Egan Arley Bernal Gomez +00:00:08
6 Mikel Landa Meana +00:00:14
7 Rigoberto Uran Uran +00:00:30
8 Geraint Thomas +00:00:36
9 Warren Barguil +00:00:38
10 Jakob Fuglsang +00:00:53

Standings

Place Rider Time
1 Julian Alaphilippe 56:11:29
2 Geraint Thomas +00:02:02
3 Steven Kruijswijk +00:02:14
4 Egan Arley Bernal Gomez +00:03:00
5 Emanuel Buchmann +00:03:12
6 Thibaut Pinot +00:03:12
7 Rigoberto Uran Uran +00:04:24
8 Jakob Fuglsang +00:05:22
9 Alejandro Valverde +00:05:27
10 Enric Mas +00:05:38