NIMES, France – A Tour de France jam-packed with unexpected plot twists is saving its biggest surprise for last.
With six riders within reach of the podium heading into the toughest final stages in the Alps, the race that resumes today after the final off-day is tantalizingly poised. Furious racing over the first 2,500 kilometers (1,500 miles) through Belgium and France and the uncertain outcome ahead of the grand finale in Paris are conspiring to deliver the most engrossing Tour in recent memory.
The suspense of still not knowing who will win with just six of the 21 stages remaining is refreshing for cycling's greatest race after years of implacable domination by the rich, super-calculating British Ineos team, formerly Sky.
“Nobody is really controlling the race as such. It's way more exciting, but it's more like chess in another sense. It's brilliant fun,” Ineos team boss Dave Brailsford said Monday. “We've sat here on the second day of a Grand Tour so many times and people say we've closed the race down and it's not been exciting. That's not been the case this time. It's fun to be involved in one of most exciting editions in a long time.”
Either one of Geraint Thomas, Ineos' struggling defending champion, or Thibaut Pinot, the French climber who rebounded in the Pyrenees from what had seemed a decisive loss of time on the flat before the mountains, could still ride up the Champs-Elysees in the iconic yellow jersey Sunday.
A Pinot victory would trigger delirium across France, which has had no homegrown champion to celebrate since Bernard Hinault in 1985 and suffered the indignity of years when Lance Armstrong and other dopers hijacked the race.
But Thomas' Colombian teammate Egan Bernal or dark horses Steven Kruijswijk from the Netherlands and German rider Emanuel Buchmann could put French champagne back on ice. Making few waves and avoiding the misfortunes, mistakes and big off-color days that sank other riders' title hopes, they're very much in the podium picture. But their stealthy consistency could hit its limits in the Alps, where conservative riding might not be enough to win if Pinot and others attack, as expected.
Just 39 seconds – practically nothing in cycling, where riders often lose minutes when they wilt on big climbs – separate Thomas, in second place overall, from Buchmann, in sixth. Kruijswijk is third, Pinot fourth and Bernal fifth.
Missing from this script is the yellow jersey himself, France's Julian Alaphilippe. His unpredictable style has endeared him to fans bored with the by-the-numbers wins that Sky, now Ineos, secured with Bradley Wiggins in 2012, four-time winner Chris Froome and, last year, with Thomas. But in the Pyrenees, Alaphilippe started to pay for taking, losing, getting back, and then extending his lead in weeks one and two.