Julian Alaphilippe

Tour de France stage stopped mid-race, new leader

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TIGNES, France (AP) — In an instant, and just as it was becoming even more thrilling, the most exciting Tour de France in decades became truly bizarre, and got a new leader — Egan Bernal of Colombia — who looks all but certain to hold the yellow jersey to Paris on Sunday.

A violent hailstorm threw cycling’s greatest race into chaos on Friday, forcing organizers to cut short a nail-biting stage in the high Alps because riders were speeding, unbeknownst to them, headlong toward a road that had suddenly become covered with ice and giant puddles and cut in half by a rockslide.

Concerned for riders’ safety on mountain roads that can be dangerous at the best of times, race organizers made an on-the-spot and extremely rare decision that the stage couldn’t continue.

The shockwave was immediate and heavy in repercussions. Unable to reach the planned finish at the ski station of Tignes, organizers decided that riders’ placings would instead be based on their time at the top of the highest mountain pass of this Tour — the Iseran, at 2,770 meters (9,090 feet) above sea level — which leading riders, but not all, had just scaled when the race was stopped.

And just like that, Bernal found himself in the yellow jersey.

He flew away from Julian Alaphilippe on the climb and reached the top 2 minutes, 10 seconds ahead of the Frenchman, who had held the race lead for a total of 14 days.

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Not only is Bernal the new leader, but he also now looks almost certain to stay in yellow all the way to Paris, because Stage 20 on Saturday will also be shortened, again because of expected storms and landslides. The now truncated route of just 59 kilometers (37 miles), shorn of two of its three planned climbs, is no longer likely to be hard enough for Bernal’s rivals to make him crack.

Still, from the way he stormed up the Iseran, few could argue that Bernal would be an undeserving winner. Having powered up the climb, Bernal was speeding down hairpins on the other side, with Alaphilippe hot on his trail, hoping to save his race lead, when they received the order to stop racing.

“I don’t really know what happened. I was speeding, attacking, and everything was going well and then they told me to stop. I didn’t want to stop,” Bernal said through a translator on French television. “When they told me that I was the race leader and I had the yellow jersey, I couldn’t believe it and I still can’t believe it.”

Organizers scrambled to deal with the disarray and riders clambered off their bikes, not immediately sure what was going on. Exceptionally, there was no winner of Stage 19, because no one had reached the finish.

“This Tour is crazy,” race director Christian Prudhomme said. “We would never have imagined a day like this.”

Having made France dream of having a first Tour winner since 1985, and having contributed more than anyone to make this Tour more memorable than most with his punchy riding, Alaphillipe lost the race lead as the Champs-Elysees in Paris was almost within touching distance.

Prudhomme said the hair-raising speeds of Bernal, Alaphilippe and other riders on the downhill from the Iseran in part prompted the decision to stop the race there and then.

“We could see that they were taking risks and we knew that they couldn’t go much further,” he said. “The only thing that counts is the riders’ health and safety. It was impossible.”

Bernal, who races on the Ineos team, was 1:30 behind Alaphilippe at the start of the stage. Now, the last obstacle for Bernal to negotiate is the long final climb to the Val Thorens ski station on Saturday in the shortened Stage 20, putting the 22-year-old in an ideal position to become the first Colombian to win cycling’s biggest race.

Prudhomme said riders’ timings at the top of the Iseran were taken the old-fashioned way, with a watch. Normally, organizers furnish riders’ placings almost immediately after each stage. On Friday, organizers first provided delayed provisional standings and then tweaked the results in official standings that took about three hours to finalize.

Bernal now leads Alaphilippe by 48 seconds. Defending champion Geraint Thomas is third, 1:16 behind Bernal — not 1:03 back as organizers first announced.

Alaphilippe said he’d been bracing to lose the lead on the tough Alpine stage, but no one had imagined it would happen in such dramatic circumstances.

“I gave it all, I don’t have any regret,” he said. “I’ve been beaten by stronger than me.”

The sudden storm turned summer into almost winter in just minutes, with a dusting of white covering what had been lush summer pastures of green. A snowplow driver tried to clear away the slush, throwing up waves of water, on the road flooded with torrents of water and ice.

It wasn’t the first time that Alpine weather had thrown Tour organizers’ plans into disarray. At the 1996 Tour, what had been planned as a 190-kilometer (118-mile) stage from Val d’Isère to Sestrières was slashed to just 46 kilometers because of snow, with both the Iseran and Galibier passes not climbed as planned.

Black storm clouds could be seen looming on the horizon as Bernal went over the top of the climb.

Although Bernal was all smiles as he stepped into an Ineos car, other contenders including Alaphlippe looked disappointed. The French rider waved his left arm in disdain and swerved back and forth across the road. Colombian rider Rigoberto Uran looked angry.

But Marc Madiot, the manager of the Groupama-FDJ team, applauded the stoppage.

“Safety is the first priority and the decision to stop the stage seemed to be the only decision to make,” he said. “Imagine that the race had a continued and a rider had plunged into a ravine.”

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Julian Alaphilippe, step closer to Tour de France title, gives yellow jersey to boy

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SAINT-MICHEL-DE-MAURIENNE, France (AP) — One big Alpine stage completed, just two more to go, and Julian Alaphilippe is still in yellow with France yet another step closer to having a first Tour winner since 1985.

Continuing to contribute more than anyone to making this the most exciting Tour de France in decades, the French rider recovered from a moment of weakness on the lunar-landscaped Galibier pass and sped down treacherous hairpin bends on the other side to preserve his race lead Thursday.

“It was a day of folly,” Alaphilippe said.

“I unplugged my brain and I was on the limit on each bend,” he said. “I did a crazy descent, where I took risks. I wanted to save my jersey.”

Job done.

But it wasn’t a perfect day for Alaphilippe. With a decisive, well-placed attack on the slopes of the Galibier — the last of three climbs to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) on Stage 18 — Colombian rider Egan Bernal got away from Alaphilippe and ate into his lead.

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

Bernal vaulted from fifth to second in the overall standings. Having started the day 2 minutes, 2 seconds behind Alaphilippe, Bernal is now just 90 seconds behind him.

“It’s very good for the morale. But Julian demonstrated once again that he is very strong,” Bernal said. “For now, I’m still behind Julian. Everything is possible. I’m in the mix but to win the Tour is difficult.”

Bernal’s teammate, defending champion Geraint Thomas, tried to make it a one-two punch by also attacking on the last hairpins leading to the top of that climb, lined by excited crowds.

But with Alaphilippe starting to wobble on the ascent, Thomas couldn’t make the offensive stick. Alaphilippe caught him again on the downhill to the finish. Thomas is still 1:35 behind Alaphilippe, as he was at the start of Stage 18, but slipped back to third overall behind Ineos teammate Bernal.

Colombian rider Nairo Quintana won his first stage, flying away from everyone on the Galibier and putting some color back into what so far had been an underwhelming Tour for the former two-time runner-up. Quintana vaulted from 12th overall to seventh, now 3:54 behind Alaphilippe.

With Quintana and Spanish riders Mikel Landa and Alejandro Valverde, Movistar now has three riders in the top 10, a possible launching pad for the team to launch more attacks in the last two Alpine stages.

“If we find a favorable ground over the next two days, we will keep attacking,” Quintana said.

But Alaphilippe is proving tough to dislodge. He has now worn the yellow jersey for 13 stages at this Tour, the most by any French rider at a single edition since Bernard Hinault held it for 17 days in winning the race for a fifth time in 1985.

With opportunities running out for rivals aiming to unseat him, Alaphilippe knew he’d be in for a torrid time among the huge barren slopes of scree leading to the Galibier, rising to a lung-burning 2,642 meters (8,668 feet) above sea level and first climbed by the Tour in 1911.

“It was a big mouthful,” Alaphilippe said. “I had imagined the worst.”

But he continues to confound even his own expectations.

Although his lead has shrunk, with the duo of Bernal and Thomas breathing down his neck, Alaphilippe is closer than ever to the podium in Paris on Sunday.

Thomas suggested that the stage simply hadn’t been hard enough to make Alaphilippe crack.

“We wanted it to be hard but the pace wasn’t there,” he said. “The call was made for Egan to go and hopefully that would kick if off a bit, but it didn’t. That’s when I went as well, just to test. But at least Egan gained some time on everyone else.”

Two huge obstacles lie between Alaphilippe and Paris in the shape of two more Alpine stages, both with uphill finishes.

Few had expected him to hold his own in the Pyrenees and, now, on the first day in the Alps.

But he’s making believers with each extra step closer to the finish.

“No matter where I finish in Paris, this Tour will have left a mark on French people,” he said. “And I’ll have learned a lot about myself.”

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Tour de France begins decisive mountain stages before Paris

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GAP, France (AP) — Picture the final showdown in “High Noon.” But at more than a mile above sea level.

With an Alpine trilogy of stages including six climbs in rarefied air, forecasts of stormy weather and only 39 seconds separating five riders determined to topple yellow jersey holder Julian Alaphilippe, the next three days at cycling’s marquee race have all the ingredients for an explosive and suspenseful conclusion.

In the role of former marshal Will Kane, Alaphilippe. With his good looks and heart-on-the-sleeve style of racing, he has become France’s national hero over the past two weeks, raising hopes that the host country will finally get its Tour champion after a 34-year wait.

After claiming the race lead by storm with a couple of well-time attacks followed up with a shock victory in the race’s individual time trial, Alaphilippe surprisingly hung onto the coveted tunic in the Pyrenees last week.

But the odds are firmly stacked against the Quick Step-Deceuninck rider in the Alps, a terrain with very long climbs that do not suit his punchy style. But like Marshal Kane, “Ala-Panache” — the nickname he earned this summer — is ready for a final battle.

“I can take punches in the mountains,” Alaphilippe said on Wednesday after Matteo Trentin won Stage 17, making the most of a long breakaway that Tour favorites were happy to let go. “I’m looking forward to the Alps.”

TOUR DE FRANCE: TV Schedule | Full Standings

Alaphilippe was not even born when Bernard Hinault won the last of his five Tour de France titles back in 1985. Thursday will mark the 13th day he will be wearing the yellow jersey, making him the first Frenchman to reach that tally at a single Tour since Hinault’s final win.

“One extra day in yellow, this is wonderful,” Alaphilippe said. “I will fight until the end. I’m gonna give it all.”

If Alaphilippe fails to defend his 1 minute, 35-second lead, another Frenchman is ready to take over in the person of Thibaut Pinot. The FDJ-Groupama leader has demonstrated in the Pyrenees that he was the best climber, taking time on all his rivals to make up for the time he lost in crosswinds earlier in the race.

Pinot is among the five riders who can believe they have a chance to win the Tour on Sunday on the Champs-Elysees, alongside defending champion Geraint Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk, Egan Bernal and Emanuel Buchmann.

Both Thomas and Kruijswijk, who are respectively second and third overall, were handed a blow on Wednesday, losing one teammate each on disciplinary grounds. Race organizers said Thomas’ teammate Luke Rowe and Tony Martin, who rides in support of Kruijswijk, were kicked out following an altercation. Despite the setback, the Ineos team has a double card to play with Bernal and Thomas.

Bernal is a pure climber from Colombia used to riding above 2,000 meters (6,560 feet), while Thomas is the most experienced of all contenders. He knows how to win a three-week race, and despite the minor crash he suffered on Tuesday, his morale is high.

“Looking forward to it now. Big three days and a big test,” Thomas said.

He added that Alaphilippe might be in for a tough time Thursday, with teams possibly riding hard to make him crack. Stage 18 to Valloire features two punishing and famed climbs, the Col d’Izoard and the Col du Galibier.

“He wasn’t great a couple of days ago and he’s been racing really well all race, so you’d think he’d be starting to get tired now,” Thomas said. “So, yeah, I guess teams will be thinking to try and make it hard all day.”

On paper, Stages 19 and 20 look even more difficult, with the Iseran mountain and two consecutive summit finishes. At 2,770 meters (9,090 feet), the Iseran is a Tour de France giant and one of the highest road passes in Europe where thin air makes things harder.

“Every day is going to be important,” Thomas said.

For Trentin and other already exhausted riders with no ambition in the general classification, the last stage that really mattered is now behind them. And the Italian rider made the most of it to post a third career stage win at the Tour.

With the peloton happy to the let an early breakaway develop at the start of the hilly, 200-kilometer trek to Gap, Trentin rode at the front for most of the stage and moved clear of the leading group about 14 kilometers from the finish at the bottom of the Col de la Sentinelle. He was first at the summit and went all out in the downhill leading to Gap. Kasper Asgreen was second, 37 seconds behind, with Olympic champion Greg Van Avermaet completing the podium.

Already thinking about the Alps, Alaphilippe and his rivals crossed more than 20 minutes behind.

“Everybody is exhausted, it was the final day for saving strength,” Alaphilippe said. “The trilogy in the Alps will decide the winner.”

Watch world-class cycling events throughout the year with the NBC Sports Gold Cycling Pass, including all 21 stages of the Tour de France live & commercial-free, plus access to renowned races like La Vuelta, Paris-Roubaix, the UCI World Championships and many more.

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