When Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) crossed the finish line of Friday’s time trial to take a shocking stage win and strengthen his overall Tour de France lead in the process, it felt like there was a chance that – for the first time in years – the race might truly be venturing into uncharted waters.
And now? After years or hammering out a well-earned reputation as the most predictable and formulaic of all three of the Grand Tours, suddenly the Tour de France has torn up its own longstanding script with a vengeance. And who knows where we’re heading?
While longstanding overall favourite Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) struggled, and other, more well-established, GC contenders either held fire or cracked even more badly on the Tourmalet, Alaphilippe strengthened his lead to over two minutes. The confirmation that the Frenchman was going to remain centre-stage in this year’s Tour for the time being, rather than crack on the Tourmalet, has truly created a wide-open race; it's even likely now that Alaphilippe will reach the second rest day on Monday and go deep into the third week in yellow.
And then it becomes perfectly conceivable that, having shown he is the strongest all-round racer at this year’s Tour, with two stage wins to his name, Alaphilippe can stay consistently ahead of the field all the way through the Alps, and become France’s first Tour winner in 34 years.
But given his relative inexperience in fighting for a GC classification – although he has won the Tour of Slovakia, the Tour of Britain and the Tour of California – and given his team is far from being the strongest for a three-week stage race, and then given, above all, that Alaphilippe’s current hold on power in the Tour follows eight years of near total domination by Team Sky, no GC contender worth their salt is going to sit on their hands and gift Alaphilippe an armchair ride to Paris. And, paradoxically, the longer Alaphilippe remains in control, the more his rivals will want to test him – if they can.
How did we get here? Simply because the script most observers expected to play out on the Tourmalet was one where Team Ineos regained control as Alaphilippe cracked. But instead, we saw three teams come to the fore on the 19-kilometre climb: Movistar, Groupama-FDJ and Jumbo-Visma. With the notable exception of the Spanish squad, whose tactics with Quintana backfired in spectacular fashion, this was as good a way of throwing their hats in the ring for a crack at yellow as any other. As for Team Ineos, they were muted at best.
“Conclusions from today? We’ve seen that the leader is stronger than expected, that Ineos are not as good as they normally are, and that Steven Kruijswijk and Thibaut Pinot can both win the Tour,” Movistar’s manager Eusebio Unzue told Cyclingnews.
The power vacuum created by Chris Froome’s absence, and Thomas' unexpected inability, as yet, to regain the momentum of last year’s Tour, is having some surprising effects, too. If there were fewer attacks than expected on the Tourmalet, it’s because riders are, so far, unsure how deep they can go and remain in control of what they have achieved. It’s unknown territory for everybody.
"You can see from the way the race is going that Froome isn’t here," said Movistar's Mikel Landa. "Riders’ expectations have risen considerably as a result and we’re all worrying about losing what we’ve got, too."
Whether Team Ineos can restore the order of the past seven years remains to be seen, but it's far from being out of the question. Although he has not been as strong as in 2018 so far, Egan Bernal’s potential as a Tour de France contender has barely been tested, and he could yet turn things around for the British team.
It would also be more than unwise to write off Thomas just because he had a good, but not spectacularly brilliant, time trial – how many of the other GC contenders would have signed on the dotted line to finish second on Saturday? – or because he didn't shine as brightly as expected on the Tourmalet. Team Ineos remain the most experienced Tour team when it comes to victories in recent years.
But there is a sense, too, that after years of controlled racing by Team Ineos – formerly Team Sky – that the pressure on the dam has grown too great to resist, and that we are, suddenly, in a whole new ballgame. If a theoretical GC non-contender like Alaphilippe can take on the top names at their own game so successfully, who knows what could happen next? And all this in the space of 24 hours, with eight days to go to Paris. Hold on to your hats.