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On La Grande Boucle: Alaphilippe Tried to Sound Confident, But His Eyes Said “I’m Done”

By Siegfried Mortkowitz

“Everyone is tired,” the defending Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas said after the 15th stage of this year’s race. He may just as well have been talking about those of us who have been following the Tour from our living room sofas. What a race! Almost every stage has been as dramatic as the Djokovic-Federer Wimbledon final, with surprises being the norm rather than the exception. Almost every stage has been a spectacle. And with only three competitive stages to go, any of the six most promising riders can still win it.

The swashbuckling Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe is still wearing the yellow jersey, leading Thomas by 1 min 35 secs. The next four riders in the standings trail last year’s winner by less than a minute, so it couldn’t be closer with three gruelling Alpine mountain stages to go. Based on what we’ve seen so far, this is how we see the race end – with the caveat that only a fool pretends to know the future and only a bigger fool believes him.

Julian Alaphilippe

The 29-year-old Quick-Step rider has been the revelation of this year’s Tour. Dynamic, courageous, and with a spectacular turn of the pedal, he has made French hearts flutter. The French love spectacle and courage and he has provided buckets of both. But he committed an enormous error at the end of stage 15, when he first tried to follow Thibaut Pinot’s explosive ascend on the final climb and then, realizing he didn’t have any gas in his tank, dropped back and tried to lead a small group of riders, including Thomas and Steven Kruisjwijk, up the last two kilometres, rather than dropping behind the group and letting himself be pulled up. It was no surprise when Thomas et al. left him behind in the final kilometre.

The qualities that have put him in the yellow jersey for 12 days – courage, aggressiveness, panache – short-circuited his brain on that day. The stage also demonstrated that, though he has energy and strength, he probably does not have the stamina for the Alps. I would love to see him win the race, but he hasn’t got the engine and, more importantly, he hasn’t got the team. Which means that Alaphilippe will likely be on his own on those long, arduous Alpine ascents, and no one wins the Tour on his own. In a TV interview following stage 15, the exhausted Alaphilippe tried to sound confident, but his eyes said: “I’m done.”

Thibaut Pinot

The 29-year-old French Groupama-FDJ rider has been nothing short of brilliant, and appears to be the best pure climber in the race. His victory on the legendary Tourmalet was breathtaking, as was his second-place finish on the following stage. An error in placement cost him 1 min 40 secs in an earlier stage but he has recovered much of that time. But at what cost? Though his team has been helpful, he did much of the decisive climbing alone. And the Alps are different from the Pyrenees, less steep but longer and more demanding of stamina. How much gas does he have left?

And how good is his team? Team sports director Marc Madiot has so far designed a brilliant battle plan but the Groupama support riders appear to be a little short on stamina. Grand tour cycling is a team sport and I don’t think the team has the chops for the Alps. On his form, Pinot represents the best chance for the first French Tour victory in 34 years but I think he’ll fall short.

Geraint Thomas

He didn’t look good during the first week and he was dropped on the Tourmalet but if you exclude Alaphilippe in your calculations, he is still leading this race. And I don’t believe his Team Ineos colleagues are as weak as they appear to be and everyone – including former Team Sky Tour de France winner Bradley Wiggins – thinks they are. I think the Team Ineos strategists looked at the race and understood that the first two weeks would be very demanding, and they took the long view in their analysis and planning. So they put all their money on the Alps, letting the support riders drop off on the Pyrenean climbs to save them for the last week of the race, where the championship will be decided. I think that on the final two stages – and especially on the final, 33.4-km ascent – Thomas will have four or five teammates leading him up, which will make all the difference.

And Thomas himself looks to be getting stronger with every stage. I think he is exactly where he wants to be, ahead of his serious competitors and getting his legs under him by the day. Among all the potential winners, he has expended the least energy, falling back when he was alone but without giving away much time. In the TV interview when he said how tired he was, his eyes said, “I’ve got this.” I believe his eyes.

Egan Bernal

The 22-year-old Colombian from Team Ineos is the best young rider in the Tour by far, a marvellous climber and a future champion. If Thomas falters, the team will ride for him. If he doesn’t, Bernal will ride for Thomas. It’s literally a win-win.

Steven Kruisjwijk

The dark horse. The Dutchman’s Jumbo-Visma team has had a great Tour, winning four stages including the team time trial. More important, Kruisjwijk was never alone in the Pyrenees, with two or three teammates supporting him on the climbs. Besides, he has looked very strong and has always been riding on Thomas’s shoulder, without appearing to put the pedal to the metal.

In 2018, Kruisjwijk led the Giro d’Italia until he crashed during the 19th stage and this year he dropped out of the Giro before the 20th stage because of stomach problems. He was tenth in the overall standings at the time, suggesting that he used the race as preparation for the Tour de France. He currently trails Thomas by 12 seconds, no more than a flea’s sneeze. In a race full of surprises, his victory would be the perfect ending.