There are three stages left in the 2019 Tour de France, and it’s anyone’s guess who will win. Six, possibly seven riders enter the final weekend of the Tour with a legitimate shot at topping the podium in Paris, representing a level of chaos the biggest race in cycling hasn’t seen in decades. The current race leader, 27-year-old Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, would not only become the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault in 1985, he’d be the most shocking Tour winner of the 21st century.
After 75 hours of racing over 18 stages, Alaphilippe holds an advantage of one minute, 30 seconds over second-place Egan Bernal, a 22-year-old Colombian who is one of the sport’s rising stars. Only 44 seconds separate Bernal from the sixth-place rider, German youngster Emanuel Buchman, with defending champion Geraint Thomas, Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk, and Frenchman Thibaut Pinot in between. Nairo Quintana, a former Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España champion, is within four minutes of Alaphilippe. That’s a big gap, but in winning Thursday’s Stage 18, Quintana took more than five minutes out of Alaphilippe’s lead in one day. Come Sunday, any one of those seven riders could roll down the Champs-Élysées in yellow.
It’d be exciting enough just to have a Tour this wide open, but Alaphilippe’s involvement makes this race even more special, though understanding why requires a bit of background on the sport.
The UCI World Tour, the top level of professional cycling, includes dozens of races each year, divided broadly into three types: one-day races, weeklong stage races, and the three-week grand tours. The grand tours—the Tour de France, the Giro, and the Vuelta—are the biggest, most famous, and most prestigious, but they’re not the only game in town. One-day races tend to feature tricky terrain, like the famous cobblestone roads of Paris-Roubaix, and short, steep climbs rather than long, arduous mountains. Individual races vary in terms of distance, terrain, weather, and tactics, which leads riders to specialize in one discipline or another.
Alaphilippe is one of the most famous cyclists in the world because of his proficiency in one-day races, commonly known as “classics.” He excels on short climbs and rolling terrain, and he’s among the best bike handlers in the sport. Alaphilippe counts among his career achievements two victories in La Flèche Wallonne and another in Milan–San Remo earlier this year. But in stage races, he’s a nonfactor as far as the general classification goes. Before this year, Alaphilippe had never finished in the top 30 in a grand tour, and his most notable stage race win was in the 2016 Tour of California, one of the flattest one-week stage races on the calendar.
What Alaphilippe could do in grand tours was hunt for individual stage wins, which he managed in the 2017 Vuelta and 2018 Tour. In addition to awarding a general classification title for the rider with the lowest overall time, stage races also award points to riders who go over certain climbs first. Last year, Alaphilippe won the polka dot jersey as king of the mountains at the Tour by picking his spots, going after shorter climbs that suited him, and conserving energy on stages he didn’t think he could earn points on. He took home two stage wins and another polka dot jersey for his trouble. Alaphilippe was king of the mountains again at this year’s Critérium du Dauphiné, an eight-stage Tour de France in miniature that serves as one of the main warm-up races for Tour contenders. But Alaphilippe finished 35th overall.
From a grand tour standpoint, Alaphilippe had so many weaknesses that he was never considered a serious contender. He could go all out on one stage at a time, but not every day for 21 days. He wasn’t a world-class time trialist. Most importantly, while he was among the best in the world on short climbs, the longer climbs of the high mountains didn’t suit him. For example: The definitive climb of La Flèche Wallonne is the Mur de Huy, a hill 420 feet high and only a few city blocks in length, with a maximum gradient of 26 percent. Compare that to the Col du Tourmalet, a peak in the Pyrenees and one of the definitive climbs of the Tour: The road up the Tourmalet is almost 12 miles long and ascends almost a mile in elevation. It’s almost a different sport.
When Alaphilippe grabbed the yellow jersey on Stage 3 of this year’s Tour de France, nobody batted an eye. The first week of the Tour tends to cover flat-to-hilly terrain before heading into the high mountains late in the race, and every year some one-day race specialist goes on the attack, wins a stage, and spends a few days in yellow before coughing up the leader’s jersey in the mountains. This is not an exaggeration: Peter Sagan, Greg Van Avermaet, Tom Boonen, Fabian Cancellara, Philippe Gilbert, and Simon Gerrans—all multiple classics winners—have all spent a few days in yellow early in the Tour de France in the past 15 years. None of them has come anywhere near this close to carrying the maillot jaune into Paris.
At the risk of inviting unflattering parallels, the difficulty of transitioning from classics to grand tours is part of the reason Lance Armstrong’s 1999 Tour de France win was so shocking. Before he was diagnosed with cancer (and began working with doping kingpin Michele Ferrari), Armstrong was an undersized, punchy classics specialist very much like Alaphilippe. His career highlights—two individual Tour de France stages, a road race world championship, and a win at La Flèche Wallonne—came under similar circumstances to Alaphilippe’s career highlights to this point, either in short efforts on individual stages or in one-day races.
But Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck-Quick Step team isn’t set up to suit a GC challenge as well as Armstrong’s U.S. Postal outfit was, in terms of manpower, strategy, or, presumably, pharmacology. And Armstrong had at least finished fourth at the previous year’s Vuelta. So while the parallels are interesting, an Alaphilippe victory would be substantially more surprising.
So how the hell is Alaphilippe doing it?
For starters, he’s having the ride of his life. The expectation was that Thomas, one of the best in the world against the clock, would pass Alaphilippe on the Stage 13 individual time trial. Instead, Alaphilippe not only beat Thomas by 14 seconds, he won the stage outright. Alaphilippe was supposed to run out of gas on the Tourmalet, but instead he followed Pinot, the stage winner, all the way to the top and finished second on the most famous climb in the race, putting a few seconds into most of the contenders, 30 seconds into Thomas, and three and a half minutes into Quintana. On every stage since, Alaphilippe has hung around with the best climbers in the world. On occasion, Alaphilippe’s opponents have managed to ride ahead of him momentarily since the Tourmalet, but he’s never lost more than a few seconds at a time, and hardly ever to the same rider more than once or twice. Since the start of the time trial, when Alaphilippe was supposed to start slipping away, his lead has actually grown by a net of 18 seconds.
But there’s also an element of nobody having bothered to catch him.
The dominant force of grand tour racing in the 2010s has been British outfit Team Ineos, which until this year raced as Team Sky. (In case you didn’t know they were the big bad before, they’ve gone from Rupert Murdoch sponsorship to fracking sponsorship.) Team Ineos exists to pursue the general classification at stage races. They’ve won the GC nine times at grand tours since 2011. In that time they’ve also dominated the shorter weeklong stage races, winning Paris-Nice six times, the Dauphiné six times, the Tour de Romandie three times, the Tour of California twice, and the Volta a Catalunya, Tour de Suisse, and Tirreno-Adriatico once each. And while the most famous figure in those victories has been Chris Froome, winner of seven grand tours, that run of victories includes wins by six other riders.
Froome was the favorite to win this year’s Tour de France until he suffered catastrophic injuries in a crash at the Dauphiné in June. If he’d been in the peloton, Ineos would have devoted all of its resources to helping him win a fifth Tour de France. But even without Froome, Ineos still had Thomas and Bernal to contest the GC.
Still, having Thomas and Bernal ride as contenders rather than lieutenants to Froome weakened Ineos’s depth, and they’ve been unable to set the kind of punishing pace they’ve relied on in grand tours past. There’s also been confusion over who the team leader is. Thomas is the senior pro, superior time trialist, and defending champion, but he’s been quiet since last year’s Tour, while Bernal has won Paris-Nice and the Tour de Suisse this year. Ineos has been surprisingly weak in the mountains. Thursday’s stage ended with back-to-back uncategorized (i.e., gigantic) climbs of the Col d’Izoard and the Col du Galibier, theoretically a great place for top-end climbers like Thomas and Bernal to test the pesky Alaphilippe. But while Bernal was able to speed off and beat Alaphilippe to the line by 32 seconds, Thomas waited until nearly the summit of the Galibier to attack, and while he dropped Alaphilippe briefly, the race leader caught back up with Thomas moments after starting the descent.
The second-biggest grand tour contender is Quintana’s Movistar team, though they’ve also got a confused power structure, with Quintana, Alejandro Valverde, and Mikel Landa all in the top 10. On Stage 18, Quintana sneaked into a breakaway and cut his deficit to Alaphilippe in half, but he might have made even greater gains if his teammates hadn’t chased him down to get Landa and Valverde back into the race.
Alaphilippe’s surprise challenge for the GC has left the entire peloton in a state of chaos, including his own Deceuninck–Quick Step team. While Ineos and Movistar sold out to contest the GC, Deceuninck was set up to challenge for individual stages for Alaphilippe and sprinter Elia Viviani, who won on Stage 4. They were—understandably—entirely unprepared to defend the yellow jersey in the high mountains, and the one Deceuninck rider with serious GC credentials, 2018 Vuelta runner-up Enric Mas, has been too inconsistent to be a reliable ally for Alaphilippe on the big climbs.
But the rest of the contenders have been too out of form, or their teams too disorganized, to knock the diminutive Frenchman off the leaderboard for good. And they’re running out of chances. Friday’s big climb is followed by a long descent that will allow Alaphilippe to make up ground or even attack, and Sunday’s final stage into Paris is largely ceremonial. If Bernal or another contender is able to win the yellow jersey, it will probably be on Saturday’s final climb to Val Thorens, which measures almost 21 miles in length and gains 6,000 feet in vertical elevation.
But Alaphilippe has already shown unforeseen reserves of stamina and tenacity, and this crop of equally fatigued opponents could find him harder to drop than ever. Regardless, the final weekend of the Tour de France will be appointment television, with the outcome entirely uncertain. I don’t remember the last time that happened.