Nimes, July 22 (AP/UNB) — 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 Tuesday 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.
Like a summer rain, the suspense of still not knowing who will win with just six of the 21 stages remaining is exquisitely refreshing for cycling's greatest race after years of implacable domination by the uber-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 on Monday's rest day. "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 on 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 many years when Lance Armstrong and other dopers hijacked the race that is as much part of the French national identity as romance and the baguette.
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, of course, is the yellow jersey himself, France's sweetheart Julian Alaphilippe. His punchy, 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 the energies he expended in taking, losing, getting back, and then extending his race lead in weeks one and two.
Having built up a lead of 2 minutes, 2 seconds over Thomas at the top of the Tourmalet, the first of seven climbs to above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) at this Tour, Alaphilippe then cracked Sunday on the last ascent in the Pyrenees. His lead shrank to 1:35 and, most importantly, his ride appeared to signal that the even harder climbs to come in the Alps, where what remains of his lead could quickly melt away if he can't stay with the pace, might be beyond his limit.
Another big unknown is whether uncharacteristic signs of weakness at Ineos, with Thomas off-color on the Tourmalet and his usually solid teammates not setting a punishing pace up climbs, were just blips or perhaps some sort of devilish rope-a-dope strategy cooked up by Brailsford that, in the Alps, will see the team return to its can't-catch-us best. Thomas talked a big game on the rest day, saying he hopes for an Alpine scrap with Pinot.
"I'd love it, I'd relish it. Bring it on," he said. "The main thing is going into the Alps I feel motivated to try and finish this Tour off well. It's been a slightly up and down race compared to last year but the main thing is I finish strong and I'm itching to go a lot better."
But the talking that counts will be done on the road.
The Alpine stages from Thursday to Saturday will see the Tour ascend six times to above 2,000 meters in the three days, with two uphill finishes. The trilogy of pain for some, joy for others, will seal the podium placings before the ceremonial run-in to Paris, where there'll be tears of red, white and blue — either of delight or sorrow.
Either way, the Tour can say something that has not always been true in recent years: there is still much more to come.