You don't often find Julian Alaphilppe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) happy with a controlled, uneventful race, but the lack of action on the Tour de France's first foray into the high mountains ensured the Frenchman remained in the famous yellow jersey for another day. It will, in fact, be a yellow skinsuit, and he'll be last down the start ramp in Friday's individual time trial, which he says will give him the motivation to "hurt myself as much as possible" in order to survive another day.
Alaphilippe lined up in Toulouse braced to defend himself against a volley of attacks from GC riders over the Col de Peyresourde and the Hourquette d'Ancizan, with Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) trailing him in second place by 1:12.
Yet, perhaps due to the 30km descent from the Hourquette to the finish in Bagneres-de-Bigorre, the general classification contenders were all content to lay down arms and sail home nearly 10 minutes behind the breakaway.
"It wasn't as straight forward as it seemed, but it went well, and there wasn't a lot of danger. I'm just super happy to be in yellow tomorrow for the time trial – that's very special to me," Alaphilippe said.
"The break wasn't dangerous – the best-placed on GC was 13 or 14 minutes down. We wanted to keep the gap modest, thinking that in the finale there'd be certain teams interested in winning the stage, but in the end no. Everyone was happy with a controlled race without attacks in the finale. I'd prepared myself for that scenario, but that's not a problem."
Ever since Alaphilippe took the yellow jersey with his electrifying victory in Epernay on stage 3, debate has raged over how long he can hold onto it. A miscalculation saw him lose it on La Planche des Belles Filles but he attacked again on the road to Saint Etienne to re-emerge at the top of the standings with 1:12 in hand.
His performances so far have led some to wonder if Alaphilippe could emulate his compatriot Thomas Voeckler's extraordinary 2011 feat of resistance and push the thoroughbred GC riders deep into the final week. There have even been whispers of him winning the whole thing. "And if we were to dream," read L'Equipe's front page headline on Thursday.
Thursday's Pyrenean amuse-bouche was, you feel, well within his grasp, and the true test of his climbing credentials was always likely to be the summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet on Saturday. First, though, he must defend his jersey over 27.2 kilometres against the clock in Pau on Friday.
"I'm going to continue to give it everything. As I've said, anything now is just a bonus. With the yellow jersey on my shoulders,I think I really have a good reason to hurt myself tomorrow. I'm so motivated, so happy. Whatever happens tomorrow, it's been great, but I just want to go as deep as possible and defend the jersey with honour."
Alaphilippe has already done reconnaissance of the route, which is rolling for the first 15km and flat in the final third. To lose yellow, he'd need to concede more than two-and-a-half seconds per kilometre to Thomas, which seems unlikely for someone of Alaphilippe's calibre. While far from a specialist, he has won against the clock at Paris-Nice in 2017, and this year won at the Vuelta a San Juan and placed fourth in the Tour of the Basque Country time trial
"lt's a demanding course, it goes up and down, there's a flat section of around 8km at the end, then a very steep final kick, which will really finish the job of destroying the legs," Alaphilippe said.
"There'll be a lot of lactic acid, that's for sure. I think it suits me and, with the jersey on my shoulders, I'm really going to give it everything."
The yellow jersey itself barely exceeds a hundred grams, but all that it signifies weighs rather more heavily. "I feel the pressure of France on my shoulders," Alaphilippe concluded.
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