Two riders from cycling’s evil empire will top the podium, but the Tour de France belonged to Julian Alaphilippe.
I’ll never forget Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot zooming away together on Stage 8 of the 2019 Tour de France. I was in the press room in Saint-Étienne as Alaphilippe broke away for the finish line with 12 kilometers to go. Pinot saw the move and quickly caught Alaphilippe’s wheel. And as the two Frenchmen worked together, journalists huddled around televisions and watch in awe. Pinot finished second and Alaphilippe took third, and together they ignited the Tour.
Spurred by that breakaway, there was talk that the first week of the race — notoriously flat and dull — had been one of the best ever. Alaphilippe was heading into Bastille Day with the yellow jersey after winning it on Stage 3, losing it on Stage 6, and taking it back with Pinot’s help. Pinot moved up to third on the general classification with the result, establishing himself as France’s top threat to win the overall yellow jersey in more than 30 years.
“Best first week” talk tumbled into “best Tour” talk in the second week when Alaphilippe won the individual time trial and strengthened his grip on yellow on the Col du Tourmalet, where he finished second and Pinot won. They were on trajectory for the perfect finish to what had been the perfect Tour, one in which panache was rewarded. The more Alaphilippe and Pinot attacked, the more self-assured they seemed, the faster they went.
Alaphilippe was this Tour’s emblem, his swashbuckling attitude and musketeer goatee injecting verve into the race. One of the world’s best stage racers, he was nonetheless left out of any discussion of yellow jersey contenders before the Tour. And yet there he was, outdueling everyone and smiling. Always, always smiling.
Then the third week happened, and though it was no less fascinating than the first two weeks, it reinstated somber reality.
What was billed as the three-day main event of the “highest Tour ever” was neutered by an act of nature. Stage 19 will live in infamy. Pinot — who fairly or not, has carried the stigma of the Mercurial Lonely French Climber — was forced to abandon in tears because of a muscle tear he suffered the day before. Then a freak snow and hail storm rolled in, coating the road at the start of the final climb in slush and mudslides. The stage was neutralized and times were taken from the top of the Col d’Iseran, where 22-year-old Egan Bernal had taken the summit more than two minutes ahead of Alaphilippe and claimed the yellow jersey.
And so the perfect Tour ended in a whimper. Stage 20 was shortened to just 59 kilometers, less than half its original length, because mudslides had made the rest of route unrideable. Alaphilippe, having shown cracks the day before, fell to fifth. And as Alaphilippe fell apart, all that was left were two Team Ineos teammates — Bernal and Geraint Thomas, the 2018 Tour winner — finishing in smiles as Nos. 1-2 in the final standings.
It was the seventh Tour victory in the last eight years for the team formerly known as Sky, which somehow found an even more loathsome sponsor in Ineos, a multinational chemical company that’s into fracking and chemical spills.
But the Tour is a long event, and it’s too easy to linger on the last taste it left in your mouth. The comparison is on the nose, but also apt: the Tour ought to be appreciated like a wine, something complex and evolving, something that might be different on the tongue than it is down the throat. A good Tour should create an emotional connection, a relationship, which means taking full stock of it. Ideally it’ll be worth remembering.
And if I close my eyes and try to project what I’ll remember of this Tour five years from now, it’s Alaphilippe — Alaphilippe fist-pumping, Alaphilippe sacrificing himself to head a leadout in the yellow jersey, Alaphilippe nearly falling over trying to defend yellow on the Planche des Belles Filles, Alaphilippe’s constant disbelief at his success alongside ours.
I’ll remember Alaphilippe shaking his head after the neutralization, but then sticking his whole body out of his team car and thanking fans for being a part of his journey, and enjoying their company as much as they enjoyed his.
I’ll remember Alaphilippe attacking from long range to take the yellow jersey for the first time on Stage 3, making a move he didn’t have to make if wanted to win the stage. And I’ll remember that Stage 8 move with Pinot most of all, when my imagination ran rampant as, apparently, did Alaphilippe’s, when he seemingly let Pinot pip him at the line for a bonus two seconds, thinking in that moment of France and not of himself.
I’ll remember Alaphilippe because no one, for as long as I have cared about this race, has ever seemed so in love with the Tour. He didn’t race like he should have, he raced like he wanted to — for himself, his teammates, and his country. And because of that, he spent more time in yellow than he had any right to.
Bernal may be the yellow jersey winner. Being so young and so charming, winning Colombia’s first Tour ever, and putting himself on the precipice of what may be a historic run of Grand Tour success should be celebrated to the heavens, and I’d be happier if he was on any other team. But as long as he rides for Ineos, fairly or not, he represents the worst idea propagated by the modern Tour: that panache and success are incompatible.
Bernal represents the fear that we may never get a perfect Tour, that the race is too long with too many variables to not eventually regress to the status quo, where the smart and sensible tend to win.
But in Alaphilippe we have the manifestation of the Tour’s riposte. Two words: “Who cares?” This sport, more than any other, can be lived in, and can be loved on the strength of the memories it creates. And in that sense the 2019 Tour wasn’t perfect — and no, perhaps no Tour has been or ever will be. But because of Julian Alaphillipe, it will live forever.