All hail Bernal on day of Tour de France chaos
It was the day French dreams died, Thibaut Pinot abandoning in tears with an injury to his leg and Julian Alaphilippe cracking on the Col de l'Iseran.
The day Geraint Thomas's challenge for a second Tour de France title ended, superseded by a younger team-mate. The day a 22-year-old Colombian, riding in only his second grand tour, soared into yellow.
What a day it was; crazy, chaotic, in keeping with this enthralling race. But what a shame that it had to end like this. In controversy.
All hail the 2019 Tour de France, the best edition in a generation. But now one destined, sadly, to be remembered for a freak hailstorm and mudslide 20km from the finish of stage 19, forcing the neutralisation of the stage at the critical moment - and the hugely controversial decision to award general classification times from the top of the penultimate climb.
With Ineos's Egan Bernal, second at the start of the day, having attacked towards the top of the Col de l'Iseran, the highest point in the race at 2,770 metres, and having gained around a minute on a chase group including Thomas, and two minutes on the yellow jersey Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step), he was best placed to profit when the race was brought to a halt.
Their decision was completely understandable. Further down the valley, just after Val d’Isere and before the riders turned back on themselves for the final climb up to Tignes, hailstorms were battering the road. Snowploughs had been deployed in an attempt to sweep the debris, the water and the slush, off the road in time. When a mudslide then cascaded over the race route at La Daille, the commissaires were left with no choice.
“First and foremost, you’ve got to think about people’s safety,” said Ineos boss Dave Brailsford. “I saw images of the stuff coming down. If the riders had been in there we’re talking a major crisis situation, so they had no choice.”
What was more controversial was the decision to award GC times based on the summit of the Iseran. Quite apart from the fact that there were no official timing controls at the summit, there was the fairness of it. Or lack of it.
Those in the chase group, such as Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) could claim, quite justifiably, that they were racing to Tignes not the Col de l’Iseran; that they were riding as a group, working together to chase Bernal down.
Thomas could claim he was conserving energy ready for the final climb up to Tignes when he might launch his own attack.
Alaphilippe, despite being two minutes down over the Iseran, was descending like a dervish again, risking it all. He might well at least have caught up to the Thomas group. We will never know.
The upshot? Barring catastrophe on the road to Val Thorens today, we will see Colombia’s first Tour winner crowned in Paris tomorrow.
Bernal will be very short odds to finish the job today after leaping from 1min 30sec down on Alaphilippe to 48 seconds ahead. Today’s stage, from Albertville to Val Thorens, was meant to be a huge Alpine affair; but with a difficult weather forecast and the effects of the landslides still being felt, organisers last night reduced it from 130km to a considerably shorter 59km, with the start at 2.30pm.
Speaking before the change, Alaphilippe had already effectively conceded defeat. “I don’t think I can [get yellow back],” he said. “It was a dream to have worn it for so long.” Thomas is the only one who seemed like he could. But he is now 1min 16sec behind in third place, and will not attack his team-mate. “The main thing is we (Ineos) have got the jersey in the team now,” he said.
“We’ve just got to go and finish the job off tomorrow.” Asked whether he would ride for Bernal, Thomas was emphatic. “Most definitely,” he said.
© Daily Telegraph, London