Finishing six seconds behind stage winner Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) and alongside the surprise yellow jersey in Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), Kruijswijk strengthened his general classification position, closing the gap to last year’s winner Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) from 46 seconds after the stage 13 time trial to just 12 seconds on Saturday.
Aside from Alaphilippe finishing second on the stage and extending his lead in yellow, perhaps the biggest surprise of the day was seeing 2018 race champion Thomas losing 36 seconds to stage winner Pinot, cracking with just under two kilometres to go after strong turns from Jumbo-Visma riders Laurens De Plus and George Bennett.
"I was hoping for this, of course, especially after yesterday where my TT was pretty good and then you have to wait and see what you can give in the first mountain stage," Kruijswijk said after the stage as he warmed down outside his team bus.
"The guys were really strong, they were always by my side and I really said to them to stay calm in the race and save energy. At one point I couldn’t hold them anymore, they were so good and they wanted to ride. At one point I had to tell them to slow down a bit because I wanted to save myself for the last kilometre and have something left but they were racing pretty hard and I think they put everybody under pressure.
"I’m still in a good position but Alaphilippe is in a better one. I think he’s already surprised everyone by keeping the yellow jersey for so long and every day he gives a great impression on the bike. We’ll have to wait and see if the moment is there and if it is, we’ll have to take it. So far, I’m happy with it."
The Jumbo train
Team Ineos, previously as Team Sky, have been the dominant team at almost every Tour de France since their first victory with Bradley Wiggins in 2012. Since then, the British WorldTour squad have won five out of the following six Tours with the Sky Train showing the strength and depth of the British squad year after year.
This year, however, and their first as Team Ineos, has been different. The dominant black and blue-clad train steaming up mountains at the Tour was a shadow of itself. Mountain domestique Jonathan Castroviejo was nowhere to be seen as the GC group became selective on the Tourmalet, Wout Poels was also dropped with more than a quarter of the climb still to come and Egan Bernal – despite moving back into the white jersey – was never at the fore alongside Thomas.
In contrast, Jumbo-Visma, who already have four stage victories through three different winners and the team time trial in Brussels were the most prominent and best-represented team on the final kilometres of the famous Tourmalet.
George Bennett, who finished just under a minute down on Pinot after shepherding Kruijswijk into the final kilometre spoke extensively to reporters after the stage, clearly thrilled with his own, and his team’s, performance on one of the most iconic climbs in the sport.
"It was [a real boost to have numbers in the final]," Bennett said. "I was really excited to see [Laurens] De Plus up there, my roommate. He was a little bit nervous this morning for the mountains, but I’m happy he was good.
"It was a great performance from us, a great team performance. It was great from Steve and it’s always great to see, well I’m going to sound like an arsehole now, but it was good that Geraint Thomas cracked. He was the guy I really believed had this [race] in his pocket. This morning, I knew Steve was good and I believed in the podium possibilities, now I believe we go to win this race. That has to be our goal.
"I thought we would [be one of the strongest teams in the mountains] because we had me and Steve here, although I’m not riding GC, I believe that I would be one of the best guys in the mountains and I believe Steve would be one of the best guys in the mountains.
"I knew that we would be there when it was down to the really select group and I knew we would have at least two. Having Laurens there too was super and it was such a great way to bounce back after yesterday with Wout [van Aert] and what happened. I think everyone stepped up to the big mountains for us and everyone can have a good day but the next thing is doing it day in and day out for the next Pyrenees and then the Alps.
"[I started believing we could win this race] with about a kilometre to go, when I saw there were five guys left and Geraint Thomas was dropped. Things are different, [thinking we could win this race] isn’t the first thing I thought of [when I crossed the line], I was thinking about other things, to be honest but things have definitely changed."
After leading Kruijswijk into the final kilometre, it appears it was Bennett’s acceleration that squeezed Thomas out of the final selection. As Bennett peeled off the front of the group, Thomas had to change his line slightly to come around before the duo rode together briefly until Bennett lost Thomas’ wheel.
"I was really surprised Thomas cracked, he looked so good. It was quite weird riding to the top with him, a lot of people were booing, which I thought was quite shit. I didn’t like that but we’re surprised in a good way that he cracked.
"I need to see the situation but I know the day where I lost time getting the bottles and was dropped, I believe that the advantage that we took that day, when we get to Paris, I think we’ll look back win that day and think it’s probably the most crucial of the Tour de France. Thibaut Pinot lost a lot, even though he did such a great time trial yesterday and he was so good today. [On that day], I believed Thomas and [Egan] Bernal would be the guys to beat, I did believe in Steve but…"
De Plus shows promise
Alongside Bennett’s performance, De Plus continues in his impressive progression after two serious crashes in 2017 and 2018 while riding for Quick-Step. De Plus signed for two years with Jumbo-Visma from 2019 and again was hampered by illness at his first Grand Tour with his new team, abandoning the Giro d’Italia in May with a throat infection.
His only day’s racing before the Grand Depart in Brussels was an 85th place finish at the Belgian national road race but any questions of his ability have been put to bed with his ride on the Tourmalet.
"Today was a good day for us but it’s a Grand Tour and tomorrow could be different," De Plus said after the stage. "We have to enjoy this but it’s three weeks and Steve has a good spot on the GC but it’s not over yet.
"I didn’t expect to be pulling when there were only ten guys left, but we were good as a team and we are in a dream. We started the Tour de France good with the team time trial and the wins of Dylan [Groenewegen], Mike [Teunissen] and Wout so maybe it’s a good flow.
"We will see, for sure Steven is a guy who never cracks, or is hard to crack, and Alaphilippe is on his first time trying to do a GC on a Grand Tour so let’s hope."
Alaphilippe continues to surprise
After initially taking yellow on stage 3 of the race, Alaphilippe’s loss of the GC lead seemed inevitable and after two days wearing yellow, the Frenchman did lose it to Guilio Ciccone. After two days, however, Alaphilippe was back in yellow and at every test since, seems to tighten his grasp on the lead and continues to surprise almost everyone.
"It’s hard to tell with [Julian Alaphilippe], he’s always suffering and moving around so you never know," Bennett added. "He’s such a class bike rider and he’s going to be hard to break but everybody has the same idea about breaking him, you can’t save it for the last five kilometres and attack him because you won’t drop him.
"We went full on the Col du Soulor and full on the Tourmalet and he was still there so maybe we need a few cumulative days and maybe he’ll go all the way to Val Thorens until he breaks, if he breaks.
"I think, me included actually, underestimated his capabilities to win this race. It’s going to be pretty hard to break him and it’s a terrible cliche but it’s a long way to Paris, but it is a long way to Paris and there are plenty of mountains between here and there. We just have to do what we did today, non-stop, every time, be relentless and hope he cracks."