Julian Alaphilippe's personality, his track record and the fact that he has raced this year's Tour de France as though it were a collage of back-to-back one-day races all indicate that he is not a genuine contender for yellow in Paris.
Sooner or later the Frenchman for Deceuninck-QuickStep will come unstuck in the high mountains, but his emphatic win in the Pau time trial has, for now at least, cast him as a person of interest for several more qualified contenders. The fact that he extended his lead over Geraint Thomas on the 27.2 kilometre course in Pau will not send the defending champion and his Team Ineos squad into panic stations, but they may alter their tactics as the race ventures deeper into the Pyrenees over the coming days.
The 1:26 margin between Alaphilippe and Thomas is hard to judge at this point – which adds to the intrigue – but the British will be confident in the firepower as the second half of the race unfolds.
After stage 13, QuickStep sit first and fourth after Enric Mas moved quietly into contention with a solid performance against the clock. On the face of it, and with Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) dropping to fifth, it looks as though QuickStep have two cards to play, but this is a three-week race and it certainly doesn’t end this Sunday.
This race has seen similar scenarios before. Remember, for instance, Bauke Mollema sitting second and Laurens ten Dam in fifth after two weeks of the 2013 Tour. They would eventually falter and drop to sixth and 13th, respectively, and the Mas-Alaphilippe pairing has the potential to do the same. One has never ridden GC before, while the other is set to leave the team and has never ridden the overall standings at the Tour. A podium in the Vuelta a Espana is highly respectable result, but the Tour is an entirely different beast.
It’s also highly unlikely that neither Alaphilippe or Mas will sacrifice himself for the other, and QuickStep’s lack depth for when the mountains come into view will surely be exposed over the next two stages.
Thomas will be content with his ride in Pau. He came into the Tour with his leadership status in question, owing to his slow start to the season and his crash at the Tour de Suisse, but he has marshalled the first half of the race almost without fault or major concern.
He was not spectacular by any means in Pau, but his accomplished performance ensured that he put time into everyone bar Alaphilippe, while at the same time ending the challenges of Romain Bardet (AG2R La Mondiale) – although the Frenchman hardly helped himself with a poor bike change and a first half of the race that has been littered with errors and missteps.
Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First) and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo) both put in highly respectable rides, but they were looking to salvage their positions after losing time in the crosswinds earlier in the race. Uran is now almost four minutes down, with Porte even further adrift.
Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Adam Yates (Mitchgelton-Scott) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) all lost more time than they would have liked, while Bernal’s performance quietly puts to bed – at least for now – his co-leadership ambitions at Team Ineos. He may be the key to dismantling the challenges of Thomas’s rivals over the coming days.
Another point regarding Team Ineos is the fact that despite being more than halfway through the race, their core group of climbers have barely been called into action. This might just be the lightest load their domestiques have endured at this point in the race.
Despite the loss of Wout Van Aert, the Jumbo-Visma squad will be bolstered by Steven Kruijswijk’s consistency. In Pau, he finished a solid sixth and is now Thomas’ closest rival based on a mix of pedigree and time on GC. Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) came out of the time trial with an equally commendable display, tying with Kruijswijk over the course, but remains down in seventh after the time he lost earlier in the race. Jakob Fuglsang was slower than he would have expected, but even he isn’t out of the running for podium place.
The fact is that this Tour de France is growing increasingly tough to call with each passing stage. Alaphilippe shines the brightest right now, resplendent in yellow, but the sun has far from set on this year’s race.