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On La Grande Boucle: Are We Watching a Vintage Tour de France?

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

If the second half of this year’s Tour de France is as eventful and exciting as the first, 2019 will be considered a vintage year in the Tour’s history. Yes, all those mountains lie ahead, and that’s where the race used to hold most of the drama and excitement – and where it has usually been decided. But the race organizers’ decision to reduce the amount of flat terrain in the run-up to the mountain stages has added a great deal of drama to the race – and it greatly benefitted the rider who has dominated the first 11 stages, France’s Julian Alaphilippe.

The 27-year-old Deceuninck-Quick Step rider took advantage of the hilly stages to take over the race leader’s yellow jersey with an explosive move late in stage 3, regained it in the same style in stage 8 while also pulling fellow Frenchman Thibaut Pinot into third place in the standings and then, in stage 10, turned what should have been a routine leg into another pulsating road race with yet another sensational acceleration 35 km from the finish line. That move split the peloton in two, with no fewer than five championship pretenders including Pinot, caught in the trailing group and losing 1 min 40 secs to last year’s winner Geraint Thomas.

Thibaut Pinot during stage 9. © Profimedia, Polaris

This was the kind of stage where the Tour is never won but occasionally lost. That may well have been the case for Pinot, Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Jakob Fuglsang, and Mikel Landa all of who now trail Thomas (who has dispelled all doubts about his fitness) by 2 mins 33 secs (Pinot) to 4 mins 15 secs (Landa). “We didn’t plan to split the peloton,” Alaphilippe said after the stage. “We only expected the stage to be nervous and tricky. Our intention was only to protect my yellow jersey and concentrate on the sprint.” Oh, well. Stuff happens.

Just as Alaphilippe has been the revelation of the Tour so far, the surprise team of the first half of this year’s race must be the Jumbo-Visma, which has four stage wins out of the first eleven so far, won the team time trial and three sprint finishes and, what’s even more impressive, each of these won by a different rider! In this era of specialization where most teams carry one sprinter, one or two riders for the low mountains, one or two leaders and the rest as support, it’s refreshing to watch a team with a different strategy – one that has already paid off in grand fashion.

Jumbo-Visma’s primary sprinter was supposed to be Dylan Groenewegen and he did win stage 7 in fine style. But after he crashed in stage 1 and was unable to participate in that sprint, teammate Mike Teunissen (who usually leads Groenewegen into the final meters) took over and won. And when both Groenewegen and Teunissen were caught in the trailing group in stage 10, fellow Jumbo-Visma rider Wout van Aert stepped up and won the sprint finish.

Based on the first eleven stages, it is now hard not to imagine Geraint Thomas as a defending Tour de France champion. He is fit and motivated and his Team Ineos looks like the well-oiled machine its predecessor Team Sky always was. But Groupama-FDJ sports director Marc Madiot whose team leader Pinot trails Thomas by 2 mins 33 secs, remains confident. “I’m not worried about the rest of the race,” he said. “On the contrary.”

Of course, anything can happen in the mountains and often does. Though Alaphilippe currently leads Thomas by more than 1 minute, it’s virtually certain that he will not figure in the race for the championship. He has already expended a great deal of energy and his kind of explosive power does not suit a long climb – especially that interminable final slog to the mountaintop finish at Val Thorens on July 27, measuring 33.4 km with an average gradient of 5.5 per cent and an altitude of 2,365 m. This is this race’s third finish 2,000 m above sea level, a first in the long history of the Tour de France. One thing is certain: no matter who wears the yellow jersey in Paris on July 28, he will well and truly have earned it.