Nine months ago, West Australian cyclist Ben O’Connor was at a crossroads in his career.
The general consensus among the Tour de France chattering classes was that if Julian Alaphilippe could do the improbable and be wearing yellow at the second rest day, he’d have a great chance of winning the Tour.
Well, the second rest day is upon us and Alaphilippe is still in yellow. Incredible as that is considering the Tour de France has tackled one of its most iconic summits in the Col du Tourmalet, and the only individual time trial of the race, the result of the race is anything but certain.
The peloton will have no doubt been nervous that Stage 11 would bring the same crosswind chaos as Stage 10 had done before the rest day. That wasn’t to be, however, and it was a much more sedate day for most of the bunch.
Four men were in the breakaway; Lilian Calmejane, Stephane Rosetto, Anthony Perez and Aime de Gendt, but they had no hope of staying away until the finish.
Their chances of winning were already all but over when 30 kilometres from the finish a crash caused Niki Terpstra to abandon the Tour, and briefly distanced pre-race favourites Nairo Quintana and Richie Porte, who both got back safely to the bunch with the help of their teams.
The bunch sprint that decided the day was finally won by Caleb Ewan for the first Australian stage win of this year’s Tour. Ewan had been there or thereabouts in every sprint so far, and he finally got the better of Dylan Groenewegen and Elia Viviani on the run into Toulouse.
Stage 12 from Toulouse to Bagneres-de-Bigorre served as a prologue to the real general classification battle that was to come in the later stages.
Although it tackled high Pyrenean climbs such as the Col du Peyresourde and La Hourquette d’Ancizan, they were safely packed into the middle of the day’s racing, and it was quickly apparent that the day’s large breakaway group would contest the stage.
Peter Sagan was part of the move, and took maximum points at the intermediate sprint just to dump a bit more salt into the wounds of those daring to challenge his green jersey domination.
He wouldn’t win the stage however, and after various attacks by Lilian Calmejane, Tim Wellens, Simon Clark and Matteo Trentin, Simon Clark and Gregor Muhlberger led the race over the final climb, with Astana’s Pello Bilbao joining them on the descent. The three stayed at the front of the race until the finish, and it was Simon Yates who took the win for Australian team Mitchelton-Scott.
Julian Alaphilippe stayed in the yellow jersey safely through the first two stages after the rest day, and conventional wisdom said he could probably keep it in the time trial if he rode well. The course was a 27.2-kilometre circuit around the city of Pau, and it was lumpy enough to offer something for Alaphilippe.
His teammate Kasper Asgreen was the rider who set the early best time, but most eyes were on the Belgian champion Wout van Aert, who was aiming to take his second win of the Tour. It wasn’t to be however, when he suffered a nasty crash after he collided with the barriers with just two kilometres to go, sustaining a deep wound to his leg and abandoning the race.
Thomas De Gendt then came out of nowhere to produce an incredible ride, and he would beat Richie Porte, Rigoberto Uran, Steven Kruijswijk and Thibaut Pinot, all of whom though were within fifteen seconds of the Belgian after good days. The likes of Nairo Quintana, Adam Yates, Dan Martin, and Romain Bardet however saw their overall hopes start to crack after poor performances.
Geraint Thomas was tipped to win the stage and take time on his rivals, and he rode to form, beating De Gendt’s time by 22 seconds, only for Julian Alaphilippe to stun the Tour de France by not just defending his jersey, but winning the stage by 14 seconds to take his second win of the Tour and extend his lead at the head of the race.
Conventional wisdom then said that although Alaphilippe had won the time trial, it was on a course that suited him, but that when the race entered the very high mountains he would fall away. And so, the peloton tackled stage 14 from Tarbes to the Col du Tourmalet.
The stage tackled the category one climb Col du Soulor before the Tourmalet, and it was Movistar who set a high pace behind the breakaway that contained former Tour winner Vincenzo Nibali.
By the time the Tourmalet reared up in front of the race Romain Sicard was closely followed by the remainder of the breakaway Elie Gesbert and Lilian Calmejane. Movistar pushed on the front of the peloton, but either forgot about their leader Nairo Quintana, or didn’t notice that he was being distanced.
He promptly fell away out the back of the peloton, along with Adam Yates, Romain Bardet, and Dan Martin, who all saw their general classification hopes end on the iconic climb. Team Ineos, although usually recognisable in leading the race up the mountain, were scrappy, with their domestiques being shed out the back of the front group as they passed the final remaining breakaway riders.
The leading group quickly whittled down to the team leaders, and then something happened that hasn’t in a few years on the Tour de France, Ineos’ leader was dropped from the front group. Geraint Thomas fell away from the leaders, that, contrary to expectations, still contained Julian Alaphilippe.
Steven Kruijswijk, Egan Bernal, Emanuel Buchmann, and Mikel Landa were part of it, and its final member was Thibaut Pinot, who with 200 metres to go sprinted away to take the stage win and with it the Souvenir Jacques Goddet and 5000 euro for the FDJ team coffers.
Alaphilippe now leads the race by over two minutes, France went suitably wild, and he, Pinot, and French President Emmanuel Macron engaged in an awkward photoshoot atop the Tourmalet.
Stage 15 didn’t go quite as high in terms of altitude, but the race’s third summit finish up the Prat d’Albis was made harder by two more category one climbs before it. The breakaway was large once again, with riders such as Quintana, Dan Martin, and Romain Bardet all trying to salvage their Tour with a stage win.
Going onto the final climb it was Simon Yates though who was on the attack again, joined by CCC’s Simon Geschke. They were being chased by Mikel Landa, who had caught and passed Quintana and the other Movistar riders who had joined their former leader in the breakaway.
Yates soon left Geschke behind who quickly went backwards, but Landa was in pursuit. The group of race leaders still contained Julian Alaphilippe, but Thibaut Pinot put his lieutenant David Gaudu on the front of the group and was soon on the offensive.
With six kilometres to go, Pinot attacked, and only Egan Bernal, Alaphilippe, and Emanuel Buchmann could follow initially. But Pinot attacked again and again, distancing his rivals one-by-one, and he soon picked up Mikel Landa.
Simon Yates went on to win the stage for his second win of the race, and Thibaut Pinot and Mikel Landa followed him over the line 33 seconds later. Down the mountain, Alaphilippe had fallen back to Geraint Thomas, who attacked and distanced the yellow jersey, the Frenchman finally having a bad day in this year’s Tour.
Emanuel Buchmann and Egan Bernal, who clearly had been told to ride his own race and not wait for Geraint Thomas, followed Pinot and Landa over the line 20 seconds later. Geraint Thomas came across the line with Steven Kruijswijk another half a minute down. Alaphilippe came across the line with his lead dented but still intact.
He still leads the race by a minute and 35 seconds from Geraint Thomas, but the race is wide open going into the rest day. Steven Kruijswijk is only another 12 seconds down, then Thibaut Pinot is just 3 seconds off the podium but clearly the strongest climber in the Tour. Egan Bernal is just over 2 minutes down but climbing better than Thomas, and Emanuel Buchmann is quietly gaining time as the race goes on.
The second rest day is here and Julian Alaphilippe still leads the Tour de France. He definitely has a chance, but stage 15 finally began to crack the swashbuckling Frenchman. But the French need not worry, Thibaut Pinot looks be the strongest rider in the race, and had he not lost nearly two minutes in the crosswinds of stage 10, he would be just seconds away from the yellow jersey.
But the Tour de France doesn’t do ifs or buts, and it’s anyone’s guess who of the top six riders will be riding into Paris in yellow. If the nation of France has anything to say about it, it will be a Frenchman, for the first time since 1985.