Nairo Quintana

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.”

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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Ten riders to watch at Tour de France

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Ten riders to watch at the Tour de France, live on NBC Sports from July 7-29 (broadcast/streaming schedule here) … 

Chris Froome
Team Sky/Great Britain
2013, 2015, 2016, 2017 Tour de France winner

If there’s one storyline this year, it’s Froome’s bid to tie the Tour de France titles record amid at least a microscope and at most a drug-testing controversy. Jacques AnquetilEddy MerckxBernard Hinault and Miguel Indurain all won five. Lance Armstrong of course claimed seven, but they were all stripped. Froome’s history chase is clouded by a September doping test that revealed twice the legal limit of an asthma drug. Froome was cleared of wrongdoing by the International Cycling Union five days before the start of the Tour, but he is sure to be the target of (at least) verbal barbs from fans.

Nairo Quintana
Movistar/Colombia
2013, 2015 Tour de France runner-up

Once Froome’s biggest challenger and still may be. Quintana won the Giro d’Italia in 2014 and the Vuelta a España in 2016, the latter being the last time Froome was beaten in a Grand Tour. Quintana struggled to 12th at last year’s Tour de France, but that was after racing the Giro that spring. Quintana skipped the Giro this season, but matters are complicated by having two other GC riders on his team.

Richie Porte
BMC/Australia
Fifth place, 2016 Tour de France

Porte was Froome’s right-hand man in the mountains for his first two Tour titles. He moved to BMC in 2016 and was tapped by Froome last year as his biggest threat, but Porte crashed out of stage nine in the 2017 Tour. Porte returned to win the Tour de Suisse last month (Quintana was third; Froome was resting after winning the Giro). Team BMC, which also includes American Tejay van Garderen, faces an uncertain future without a title sponsor beyond this season.

Mikel Landa
Movistar/Spain
Fourth place, 2017 Tour de France

Landa succeeded Porte as the strongest non-Froome rider on Sky. He missed the podium by one second last year and certainly looked strong enough helping Froome in the mountains to be leading his own team. Landa’s move to Movistar for this season doesn’t necessarily boost his yellow-jersey hopes. He’s on a team with two other GC contenders — Quintana and Alejando Valverde.

Vincenzo Nibali
Bahrain–Merida/Italy
2014 Tour de France winner

The only man in the field with a Tour title other than Froome. Like Froome, Nibali has also won all three Grand Tours (seven men have done this in history). Nibali, who left Astana for Bahrain-Merida in 2017, has finished on the podium in 10 of his last 14 Grand Tours dating to 2010. But he was 30th in his last Tour de France in 2016 and unimpressive in spring races.

Tom Dumoulin
Sunweb/Netherlands
2017 Giro d’Italia winner

Dumoulin’s success can be separated into two pots — time trials and the Giro. He earned Olympic time trial silver in Rio (between Fabian Cancellara and Froome) and won the world title last year (ahead of bronze medalist Froome). He captured the Giro in 2017, becoming the first Dutch man to win a Grand Tour since 1980, and was runner-up to Froome in Italy this year. Dumoulin’s best Tour de France finish was 33rd, and this is his first time racing the Tour after completing the Giro.

Romain Bardet
AG2R La Mondiale/France
Tour de France runner-up (2016) and third place (2017)

At 27, the youngest rider on this list. Bardet is again tasked with trying to end France’s longest Tour victory drought, now dating 33 years since Hinault’s fifth and final title in 1985. Strong in the mountains, Bardet is known for struggling in time trials. He nearly squandered a place on the podium on a 14-mile time trial in the Tour’s penultimate stage last year, losing 72 seconds to Landa.

Rigoberto Uran
EF Education First–Drapac p/b Cannondale/Colombia
2017 Tour de France runner-up

The surprise of the 2017 Tour podium. Uran was best known for taking 2012 Olympic road race silver. He went into the 2017 Tour with a best previous finish of 24th, though he was runner-up at the Giro 2013 and 2014. Uran helped usher in a strong group of Colombian riders, but no South American has won the Tour de France. Uran, flying under the radar by his spring results, will again have help from American Taylor Phinney and, especially in the mountains, veteran Frenchman Pierre Rolland.

Peter Sagan
Bora–Hansgrohe/Slovakia
Eight Tour de France stage wins

The most magnetic figure in the sport returns after being wrongly disqualified for his clash with Mark Cavendish in the fourth stage last year. Sagan is nicknamed “The Terminator,” is known to pop wheelies at races and inhale gummy fruit candy after victories. And that happens often. Sagan has won three world road race titles and five Tour de France points classifications as the top sprinter. One more green jersey in Paris to match Erik Zabel‘s record.

Mark Cavendish
Dimension Data/Great Britain
30 Tour de France stage wins

Cavendish’s Tour ended after four stages last year, breaking his shoulder falling from that clash with Sagan. That meant he remained four stage wins shy of Merckx’s record. Time is running out. Cavendish is 33 years old and won five stages total from the last four Tours. It’s getting more and more difficult for the Manx Missile to outsprint Sagan and the other 20-somethings chasing the green jersey.

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MORE: Froome cleared to race Tour, doping case closed

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Chris Froome takes yellow jersey at Tour de France

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The new leader of the Tour de France is a familiar one — three-time champion Chris Froome.

Froome finished third on a Stage 5 summit finish Wednesday, 20 seconds behind stage winner Fabio Aru of Italy and four seconds behind runner-up Dan Martin of Ireland.

Froome made up a seven-second deficit on teammate Geraint Thomas, who was the overall leader going into the three-week stage race’s first mountain day. Thomas, a longtime support rider for Froome, finished 40 seconds behind Aru in 10th place at La Planche de Belles Filles.

Froome now leads Thomas by 12 seconds in the overall standings through five of 21 stages. The goal is to keep the yellow jersey through to Paris on July 23.

“This is going to be the hardest-fought battle [for the Tour title] I’ve ever had,” said Froome, Tour winner in 2013, 2015 and 2016.

Froome attacked Wednesday with one mile left chasing Aru, the 2015 Vuelta a Espana champion who had opened a 20-second lead with a move a half-mile earlier.

Froome was joined by general-classification rivals Richie Porte and Romain Bardet. Contenders Alberto Contador and Nairo Quintana fell off, finishing six and 14 seconds behind Froome, respectively.

TOUR: Results/Standings | Highlights | Broadcast Schedule

The new overall standings:

1. Chris Froome (GBR) — 18:38:59
2. Geraint Thomas (GBR) — +:12
3. Fabio Aru (ITA) — +:14
4. Dan Martin (IRL) — +:25
5. Richie Porte (AUS) — +:39
7. Romain Bardet (FRA) — +:47
8. Alberto Contador (ESP) — +:52
9. Nairo Quintana (COL) — +:54

The peloton caught the last two breakaway riders — Belgians birthday boy Philippe Gilbert and Jan Bakelants — with two and a half miles left.

Wednesday marked the first Tour de France stage in 30 years to start without any rider who had previously won a points classification title.

Peter Sagan, top sprinter at the last five Tours, was disqualified Tuesday after his contact with 2011 green jersey winner Mark Cavendish caused Cavendish to break his shoulder-blade and abandon the Tour.

Thursday’s Stage 6 will be a day for the remaining sprinters. The 134-mile trek from Vesoul to Troyes crosses the River Seine and is straight and flat for the final kilometer. Expect Germans Marcel Kittel and Andre Greipel and Frenchman Arnaud Demare to vie for the stage win.

NBC Sports Gold coverage starts at 6 a.m. ET. NBCSN’s coverage starts at 7:30 a.m.

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MORE: 10 Tour de France riders to watch

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