For much of the past three weeks this Tour de France has unfolded as if guided by a higher power. The cycling gods, French by nationality, chose Julian Alaphilippe as their plaything and have shepherded him to ever more ludicrous levels of contention.
That he has reached Stage 19 in yellow is frankly bonkers.
Today, divine intervention continued.
Unfortunately, for King Julian, those French gods seemed to misplace their divinity. While they were busy scrabbling around down the back of the settee looking for it, a less benevolent, possibly Greek variety, stepped in and changed tack.
Zeus, god of the skies, wrought havoc.
Only after Egan Bernal, Colombian god of altitude, had done similar.
The Col de l’Iseran, in a Tour of massive mountains, is enormous. Gigantic. Super-massive. Rising above 2,700 metres in altitude. After the sluggish climbing on Stage 18 Team Ineos, the team of Bernal and Geraint Thomas, well and truly put the hammer down.
The hammer of the gods, presumably.
The peloton was whittled like a dry twig in the hands of an industrious boy scout. A breakaway, in dribs and drabs, was up the road, and the main General Classification contenders began to do battle.
With forty-odd kilometres still to ride.
Team Ineos clearly in no mood let the race drift away from them.
Geraint Thomas attacked first, on a steep section, and Yellow Jersey Alaphilippe began to grimace. When Bernal resolved the old one-two and headed off into thin air no one from the main group could hold him. He was away. In search of a Yellow Jersey.Embed from Getty Images
Alaphilippe, still several kilometres from the top, suffering.
As he eventually summitted, in this desolate place, Bernal was nearly two minutes down the road. We strapped ourselves in for one of Alaphilippe’s trademark yelp-inducing point-of-view descents – like a bobsleigh run on an ice-free track – and wondered if he could fight back again.
He summoned those cycling gods once more. Back to the well of heavenly inspiration. To be met by the wagging finger of Zeus, providing temporary deity duties for the day, who unleashed hell up ahead.
Well, not hell, so much as hail, snow, rain, mudslides across the road, and general weather-related mayhem.
Information pitter-pattered through radio earpieces. Riders, riddled with adrenalin, gesticulated and waved emotional frustration to the cameras. Christian Prudhomme, boss of the race, hung out of a car window, regal and important, to pass on the news to Bernal and companion on the descent Simon Yates.
Footage of snow plough, ice, and landslides filtered through on social media.
Riders sheltered in tunnels.
No choice but to halt the race.
Bear Grylls showed up at one point, not a man to miss a televised survival situation, and swilled down a glass of his own urine* for the cameras; a bizarre, yet strangely appropriate toast to the new wearer of the Yellow Jersey, twenty-two-year-old Egan Bernal.
With the race having been neutralised using the summit timings from the Iseran the Ineos man is now proud holder of a forty-eight second lead over King Julian on the General Classification.
Impressive. Dramatic. Cataclysmic. And incredibly unsatisfying.
Hats off to Bernal, and there’s a good chance, surely, with a climb to go, he’d have finished the day in yellow anyway, but it would’ve been nice for the road (and the legs) to decide.
And as if it weren’t a bad enough day for France Thibaut Pinot – major contender to win the whole shebang himself – climbed off in the early stages. A torn thigh muscle, brought with him into the stage, causing a teary departure in a team car.
Clearly Athena, goddess of, erm…thigh muscles, getting in on the act.
To regain the race lead tomorrow Alaphilippe will need luck, good weather, heavenly assistance, and some kind of water-into-wine tired-legs-into-fresh-ones miracle. Alas, I think the fairy-tale is over.
*It’s possible I made this up. It’s hard to say. It was a confusing time.
(Top image: Wormke-Grutman [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D)