Today the Tour de France winds up in Paris, after three weeks of intense struggle, and surprises all the way.
The parade into Paris is always the most widely watched stage of the Tour. It’s designed for TV, with a flat course highlighted by loops around the Champs d’Elysées, and tight sprints against the backdrop of Paris’s gleaming monuments.
Whatever happens in the sprint finish, as long as he doesn’t fall off his bike along the way, Egan Bernal will be the first Columbian rider to win the Yellow Jersey, as well as the youngest rider to win the race in over 70 years.
The 2019 Tour de France was fascinating from start to finish. With questions hanging over the only clear favorite, last year’s winner Welshman Geraint Thomas, riding for Ineos, and a wide field of possible contenders, expectations were wide open.
French rider Julian Alaphillipe, of Deceuninck-Quick Step, emerged as a serious GC contender. He scored a stage win early in the race to claim the Yellow Jersey, soon lost it, reclaimed it, and held onto it for most of the race, to the delight of the French fans.
Perhaps the least surprising result this year: Peter Sagan stepped into the Green Jersey very quickly, and there was little doubt he would keep it for the race. This is his seventh points category win, a new record.
Highlights of the Final Week of the 2019 Tour de France
A handful of possible favorites seemed out of the running after the first two weeks, with too much time to be made up. In the last week it became clear they were playing a waiting game, saving strength for the Pyrenean and Alpine stages.
Alaphillipe’s margin was not wide enough to be anything like certain, and with strategic efforts over a few days at least six riders vaulted into reach of the podium. Once again it seemed this could be anyone’s race.
Thibault Pinot had emerged in the second half of the race as a real force. Many French afficionados pinned their hopes on him, and there hardly seemed to be a kilometer on the entire course of the Tour without his name painted on the road as encouragement. After losing time in the early stages, Pinot made it all up with two stage wins in the Pyrenees. He fought his way up to 5th place, within seconds of the podium, and in reach of the win. His frustration was perfectly clear when he was forced to abandon early in stage 19, with a worsening muscle tear. With Pinot’s ambitions went the hopes of millions of French fans. At least they had the consolation of Alaphillipe still wearing yellow after so much of the race – the first time a French rider has worn yellow for so long in decades.
Alaphillipe gave his all in every stage, fueled by the honor of wearing the yellow jersey, and no doubt buoyed by the energy of the fans. He has been considered a puncheur, a rider who can both sprint and climb, but in this Tour he was tenacious in the high mountains as well, where the grimpeurs usually prevail and leave the others in their wake. He endured through the Pyrenean stages into the Alps, where the intensity of the climbs and the efforts of the climbers finally took their toll.
Quintana is in the top echelon of the grimpeurs, pure climbers who seem to hang on in flat and time trial stages so that they can soar on the highest peaks. In this Tour he seemed too far adrift to still have hopes in the second half of the race, but on Stage 18 he showed us what he is capable of. This was a classic mountain stage tactic, where a bold attack and superior climbing ability can suddenly reverse a 5 minute deficit. Quintana seized his opportunity mid-way through a stage with multiple climbs and simply rode away, out of the reach of chasers, chiseling a 9 minute deficit down to 4 minutes – strategically into the zone of threat to the leader. Pinot overcame other chasers to place second that day, and advanced significantly himself.
Stage 19, in the Alps, was a day when Alaphillipe’s daily efforts and limitations as a climber were having an impact. He was struggling to stay with the Peloton when Egan Bernal attacked approaching the first of two high summits in the stage. He opened a two minute gap on Alaphillipe in only one kilometer, to become the virtual leader of the race. He was showing every sign of prevailing for a stunning win on the second summit.
It turned out the stage was won by a landslide – literally. Inches of hail fell on the course and tons of debris blocked the road ahead, forcing the days’ race to be suspended with no winner declared, and times taken from the summit last passed.
Belgian rider Tim Wellens, of Lotto-Soudal, was a constant figure in breakaways and summit sprints through the Tour, holding on to the polka dot King of the Mountains jersey for most of the race, only to lose it in the last Alpine stages to French rider Romain Bardet.
The last day in the Alps, Stage 20, was drastically shortened because of the weather related road conditions. It was almost a drag race, a third of the stage’s planned length, with more than half of it being a constant slog up a steep Alpine climb. The pace was fast, a breakaway moved early and stayed away from the peloton effectively, with one rider, Vincenzo Nibali, a previous Tour winner, accelerating from the front and staying well away for an impressive stage win – his first in five years.
Alaphillipe lost contact with the peloton on the climb, while Bernal and Thomas rode together toward the front of the race to claim first and second places overall. Bernal is only 22, and seemed a little astonished to be wearing yellow, but his consistent presence in the race standings, and impressive performances in the toughest stages, mark him as a champion to watch for years to come.