The 2019 Tour de France podium, with the youngest winner of the Yellow Jersey in the history of the race, Egan Bernal, ahead of his Ineos team mate Geraint Thomas and Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk, was constructed throughout three weeks of twists and turns. Julian Alaphilippe’s long period in yellow of added unexpected excitement, as did Thibault Pinot’s dazzling display before he retired two days from Paris. It was mission business as usual for Peter Sagan, who won his record setting 7th green jersey, while the sprinters had to take, in some part, a back seat to Caleb Ewan, who scored three stage victories in his Tour debut, including the most prestigious one on the Champs-Elysées. Romain Bardet, not quite in the hunt for the overall win (15th), still finished his 7th Tour on the podium and on a high note, with his first polka-dot jersey.
The French on a mission
The wait continues. No one still knows the name of the eventual successor to Bernard Hinault, the last French rider to win the Grande Boucle in 1985. But all throughout the 2019 edition, two Frenchmen put themselves in a position to be a more and more credible contender, albeit in two very different ways. One of today’s top specialists when it comes to one-day classics and stage victories, Julian Alaphilippe seized his first opportunity, near the town of Epernay, slipping on the Yellow Jersey. No one thought he would wear it for such a long time. Although he relinquished it to Giulio Ciccone for a brief moment, the French rider quickly replied at Saint-Etienne, where he retook the overall lead, with the perspective of remaining in Yellow just until the Pyrenees. He wasn’t satisfied to just hold on to the GC lead and increased his advantage over Geraint Thomas after the first major mountain range. He then set best time on the Pau time trial, stayed with the favourites on the Col du Tourmalet and barely flinched on the slopes of Prat-d’Albis before the rest day. Julian Alaphilippe eventually weakened in the Alps, on a terrain where he logically ceded his place to Egan Bernal, while an entire nation or nearly so seemed to be pushing him to Paris in that same jersey.
Meanwhile, the best chance for France was Thibaut Pinot, who was forced to ride at a distance after losing 1:40 when he got caught out by crosswinds on the Albi stage, although his chance to turn the race in his favour seemed quite real after his forceful ride up the slopes of the Col du Tourmalet. Fourth overall as the Tour reached the Alps, the French rider was among the favourites after displaying top form and a conquering temperament. And yet it was his form that stopped him, in this case a muscle tear in his left leg that left him no choice but to retire on the Tignes stage that could have been his day to star. But it was not to be for Pinot.
A new podium was produced on two shortened but decisive stages, on route towards Tignes and Val Thorens, with Egan Bernal in the role of a Columbian super-hero, followed by his Ineos team mate Geraint Thomas and Steven Kruijswijk, whose Jumbo-Visma team was omnipresent on the Tour. It was they who managed to eject Julian Alaphilippe from the podium, while he was still 2nd overall at the foot of the final climb to the highest ski station in Europe.
Sagan, the record
There was no fight for the green jersey! Sure, the classification was led for a day by the winner of the opening stage, Mike Teunissen, but it was Peter Sagan who slipped on the green jersey the following day and never took it off just until the podium on the Champs-Elysées. Once again, the Slovak focused all his attention on collecting points as he rode in the breakaways to fight for the intermediate sprints, strung together strong finishes behind the fastest sprinters to score everywhere he could. An astute connoisseur of the subtleties of this competition, the three-time World Champion only won one stage, in Colmar, but finished nine stages in the Top 5.
In all, Sagan won by a commanding 68-point advantage over Caleb Ewan, and broke Erik Zabel’s record in claiming his seventh green jersey in Paris. Along the way, the 12th stage won by the Bora-Hansgrohe rider put him on equal footing with the former German sprinter, which also ties him with two other legendary sprinters, Robbie McEwen and Mario Cipollini.
The dots for Bardet
The polka-dot jersey had a distinctly Belgian accent right from the start in Brussels. First with Greg Van Avermaet, who went in search of it on the Mur de Grammont where his outstanding Flandrien qualities stood out. Then with Tim Wellens, who found a role that ideally suited his all-rounder make up, capable of battling in the breakaways on rolling stages. Employing clever tactics, the member of the Lotto-Soudal team maintained the advantage in the King of the Mountains classification for 15 days, which none of his compatriots had done since Lucien Van Impe.
Wellens though reached his limits when the race entered the Alps. Although he managed to join the breakaway that saw him to score his last points as he passed the Col de Vars in the lead, it was Romain Bardet who made the most of the Valloire stage to take the lead in the climbers classification. The two remaining stages promised a wide-open battle for the polka-dot jersey, but they being shortened helped the Frenchman, who was not at peak form, to easily defend his position. He admitted luck was on his side to allow him to keep the polka-dot jersey and step on the podium on the Champs-Elysées for the fifth time in seven Tour participations.
Ewan, up to the challenge
They call him the “Pocket Rocket” due to his diminutive size and his explosive style that are reminiscent of Mark Cavendish, the Tour stage win leader, still competing, with 30 victories. Caleb Ewan was chomping at the bit to participate in his first Tour de France. He was even eyeing a strong start, with a Yellow Jersey guaranteed to go to a sprinter in Brussels. But the Australian’s debut was more laborious than planned. Always close but not really in contention, he took four top three results and as many frustrations in the mass sprints in Brussels (3rd), Nancy (3rd), Chalon-sur-Saône (2nd) and Albi (3rd), before stepping on to the stage-winner podium in Toulouse.
It was in the Haute-Garonne prefecture where Ewan’s trajectory joined that of “Cav”, who also began to win Tour stages at the age of 25, in 2008. Winner in Toulouse like Cavendish, the young Australian did it again a few days later in Nîmes, where his role model did the same 11 years earlier. Above all, Caleb Ewan finished his Tour de France in grand style on the Champs-Elysées. During his first visit to the City of Light, when he was just 17, he went to the Champs Elysées, that avenue that is so very special to all the sprinters, promising to, one day, raise his arms. That’s done, at the first attempt. And Caleb Ewan has fired the warning shot in the direction of Peter Sagan. He is now the Slovak’s most serious rival for the green jersey in the coming years.
Fotos: Gerhard Plomitzer – www.plomi.smugmug.com