Extreme heat turned to Biblical hailstones and a mud landslip as the 19th stage of the Tour de France was brought to a premature halt to add even further drama to the tightest finish in years.
The experts were struggling to recall a more dramatic stage in living history with the freak weather conditions virtually handing the title to Team Ineos once again on a day that saw one French challenger, Thibault Pinot, pull out with injury, and the home favourite, Julian Alaphilippe, fall apart on a critical climb.
With one more stage to go in the Alps it will be the Colombian Egan Bernal who will start in Yellow for Team Ineos, with his teammate and defending champion, Geraint Thomas, looking to hang on to a podium finish.
The overnight leader Julien Alaphilippe, darling of a French nation starved of a home winner in their own race since 1985, was dropped on the long climb up Col de l’Iseran as Thomas put his foot down and led a vital breakaway. The Frenchman held a 1 min, 30 sec lead over Bernal and a further five seconds over Thomas.
There were just over 5.5kms to go to the top of the demanding climb, but having started the move, the Welshman saw his teammate speed past him and use Simon Yates as a partner to reach the summit first and claim an eight second bonus. His strength saw him take more than two minutes out of Alaphilippe and put himself on course to win his first tour.
The provisional results showed Bernal finishing 2 min, 07 sec ahead of Alaphilippe to carry forward a 45 sec advantage into the Saturday’s final climbing showdown. Thomas was 50 sec down on his teammate in eighth, but crucially took 1 min, 17 sec out of his deficit behind the Frenchman to stay in third place overall a mere 18 sec behind Alaphilippe and 1 min, 03 sec behind Bernal.
Tour de France General Classification after Stage 18
1 Egan Bernal
2 Julian Alaphilippe +45sec
3 Geraint Thomas +1min 03
4 Steven Kruijswijk +1:15’
5 Emanuel Buchmann +1:42’
The conditions had fallen from 40C on Stage 17 to 9C overnight, but as the riders headed towards Val d’Isere the temperatures were still high. As Bernal headed down the hill from the top of Col d’Iseron he and those behind him had no idea of what lay ahead.
Former Tour winner Bradley Wiggins was at the head of the field on the back of a motorcycle during some TV work for Eurosport. He described the scene and the conditions.
“I was in a T-shirt coming down the mountain and it started to rain. We put jackets on, but by the time we came out of Val d’Isier there were large hail stones coming down and the diggers were out,” said Wiggins.
“The amazing thing was that 1k further on and we were out of it and almost back in shorts and T shirt. It was a microclimate.
“You have to feel for the riders, they were bemused because they didn’t know what was in store for them down the hill. They were coming off the descent in lycra without jackets. It all happened so fast they weren’t prepared for it.
“The Gendarmes stopped us and said it wasn’t safe to go through. It was like going through pools of water.
“Things can happen so quickly in the mountain stages and you have to be able to react quickly to them. We’ve never seen anything like this before on the Tour de France.
“You imagine that Alaphilippe would have lost more time on the final climb after coming through Val d’Isere. If Bernal is in yellow then that should make things clear – he will be the leader of Team Ineos.”
It certainly seemed as though Thomas acknowledged that Bernal, one of the pre-race favourites, was the stronger man on the day. Having made the initial break, he appeared to revert to his former supportive team role once Bernal went storming up the mountain and now it will be a case of trying to make it a one-two for Team Ineos.
The name may have changed, but the success continues for the former Team Sky. If Bernal goes on to win the title he will be the fourth rider from his team to win in the past eight years.
Wiggins began it all by becoming the first British winner in 2012, Chris Froome triumphed in 2013, 2015, 2016 and 2017 and Thomas was last year’s champion. On top of that, Froome was second in 2013 and third last year and they won the team title in 2017.