Tour de France: Julian Alaphilippe ready for do-or-die in Alps

France is holding its breath with arguably six men still in with a shot at winning cycling’s greatest prize.

Julian Alaphilippe is bidding to become the first French winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.   -  AP

With just two acts of an Alpine trilogy remaining, Tour de France yellow jersey wearer Julian Alapilippe knows he will be a marked man on Friday’s stage 19 climb to a summit finish at Tignes.

In the second of a trio of Alpine stages, that saw the 2019 edition billed as “the highest in history” when the route was announced, this year’s Tour has also been widely acclaimed as a thriller. With a classic backdrop for the two final days of reckoning, ahead of Sunday’s Champs Elysees parade, France is holding its breath with arguably six men still in with a shot at winning cycling’s greatest prize.

Alaphilippe is bidding to become the first French winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

Friday’s short 129km run takes in a 2770m peak, followed by a 20km descent before another ascent to the ski station at Tignes.

The French heatwave of these past two days will make way for storms, complicating the action and making a perilous occupation even more so on the descents where Alaphilippe, or “the darling of France” as third-placed 2018 champion Geraint Thomas describes him, excels. “There are two summit finishes to go,” said French hopeful Thibaut Pinot, who is currently fifth.

“And we can expect quite a bit of action on both of them. Movistar and Ineos will make sure of that,” added Pinot of Thomas’s team and that of Thursday’s winner Naro Quintana, a Colombian climb specialist who thrived at altitude to win by over five minutes. If anything, what the organisers describe as “the unending” 33km onslaught to the peak at Val Torrens on Saturday will be harder, but Friday is likely to be the decider.

“I know,” Alaphilippe said with a laugh when reminded of what lay ahead. “But look, I’m still in yellow,” he added, pointing to his jersey.

Bernal unfurls his wings

While Quintana stormed to the stage victory on Thursday, compatriot Egan Bernal climbed from fifth to second overall.

Bernal, at 22 the youngest man in the race, sprung his attack three kilometres from the summit of the Col du Galibier, running the gauntlet of the fans packed onto the final stages of the relentless 23-kilometre climb, which ended at over 2,600m.

A spectator sits next to a banner reading "Thank you to the Tour de France" during the eighteenth stage. Photo: AP

 

Bernal is perfectly primed in second place at 1min 30sec from Alaphilippe.

Welshman Thomas is a further five seconds back in third, Steven Kruijswijk in fourth at 1min 47 and Pinot fifth at 1min 50sec. Germany’s Emanuel Buchmann is sixth overall, 2:14 off the pace.

For 17 stages, Bernal had been kept largely under wraps by Ineos, but as the race approached the sort of altitude in which he grew up, he finally unfurled his wings in the rarefied oxygen, scampering off to put 31 seconds into his four closest rivals. Bookmakers are still offering very short odds on Thomas defending his title.

However, with storms expected on Friday, the fall-prone Welshman will be wary of the long descent as the 2019 Tour goes right to the wire.