Never in the past few years has the Tour de France been so exciting at this stage of the race; never has the question of the ultimate winner of the three-week event been so open; and never have the margins separating the top six in the General Classification (GC) been as slender as this year. And rarely have the weather conditions been as tough for the riders as in this 106th edition of the Tour. As the final week gets under way in blistering heat, there is still no telling who is going to win.
On the positive side, this means that last year’s winner, Geraint Thomas from UK-based Team Ineos, formerly Sky, who are again contesting the Tour on racing bike tyres from Continental, still has every opportunity of returning to the top step of the podium when the final honors are presented this coming Sunday evening in Paris. Thomas is currently just 1 minute 35 seconds (1:35) behind the overall leader in the yellow jersey, while his team-mate Egan Bernal is in fifth place (+ 2:02).
The riders now face three ultra-demanding Alpine stages before it finally becomes clear who is going to triumph in the 106th Tour de France. Much as expected, when the race got under way again in Nîmes after the second rest day, it was the sprinters and breakaway types who grabbed another day in the spotlight before the ultra-tough final stages where the GC will finally be decided.
Who gets to wear the yellow jersey as the Tour culiminates on the Champs Elysées on Sunday will be settled by Saturday evening on conclusion of the penultimate stage from Albertville to Val Thorens. Because true to an unwritten code of honor, there’s no attacking the yellow jersey on the final day. For the sprinters, however, this is the stage on which the best of their breed and holder of the green jersey is determined in a “finale furioso”, climaxing on the Champs Elyées. On Tuesday’s flat stage over 177 kilometers, starting and ending in Nîmes, the sprinters were able to secure further precious points in pursuit of that coveted jersey.
And the top sprinters in the teams running on racing tyres from Continental will have a significant say in who ends the Tour in green. Italy’s Sonny Colbrelli from Team Bahrain-Merida and Australia’s Michael Matthews from Team Sunweb are currently lying third and fourth respectively in the sprinter rankings, which means that two Continental riders are right behind the leader Peter Sagan and second-placed Elia Viviani.
As the Tour set out over the 200 kilometers from Pont du Gard to Gap on Wednesday, it wasn’t long before a breakaway group of almost 30 riders used the hilly early section to create a gap of their own. The group included riders from eleven different teams. All six teams riding on Continental tyres were present in the breakaway: Team Ineos, Bahrain-Merida, Groupama-FDJ, Katusha-Alpecin, Movistar and Sunweb. But on what was the last day before the testing Alpine stages, there was room for tactical considerations as well. Given that none of the 33 “baroudeurs” in the breakaway posed a threat to the leaders in the GC rankings, the peloton was happy to let them get away.
The top six among those leaders come from five different teams, with Thomas and Bernal from Ineos the only team-mates among a sextett separated by just 2:14. Lying fourth in this group of six (1:50 off the yellow jersey), Frenchman Thibaut Pinot is among those who can still hope to climb onto the top step of the podium in Paris. Pinot rides for Team Groupama-FDJ, who are also racing on “black gold” from Korbach, and his team-mates will be pulling out all the stops to support him and maybe fool the opposition with feint attacks.
Right behind the top six is Mikel Landa, the leading contender for the Spanish Movistar team, who for several years now have also put their trust in Continental products. Landa is currently 4:54 behind the yellow jersey and trails sixth place by 2:40. But that is not to say that the Movistar rider has no chance of battling for a place on the podium. The performances levels of the leading riders are so similar that things are immensely close at the top of the GC.
Which is why it will be fascinating to see how Movistar tackles the first of the Alpine stages on Thursday, when the Tour takes in three mountain passes at over 2,000 meters. Will they choose to attack, or play wait-and-see, trying to second-guess the strategy of the other teams? And what if, on the final three days of this murderous Tour, Landa doesn’t have the legs for a decisive attack? Then in the shape of his countryman Alejandro Valverde, just six seconds behind Landa, Movistar has another potential candidate up its sleeve who – just perhaps − none of their competitors is reckoning with.
Similarly, British-based Team Ineos, who, with Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal are the only outfit with a dynamic duo up among the leaders and pushing for overall victory, will be weighing up their strategic options. What are the other teams planning? Do they try to counter every attack or save some “powder” for the final climb? And above all: does Team Ineos put all its eggs in one basket and back Geraint Thomas to repeat last year’s victory? Or will it turn out to be his young 22-year-old Columbian team-mate who has the stronger legs in this ultra-testing terrain? Whatever, the man wearing number 2 is already in the white jersey of the best young professional, securing it for a team on Continental tyres.
The mighty Col d’Iseran – the highest road pass in Europe – could prove the decider one day later on Friday. This is only the eighth time since the very first Tour de France in 1903 that the 2,770 meter pass has featured on the route. The only thing that’s for sure is that the final stages of the 2019 Tour de France are going to be the most exciting for many a year. In the final event, it will be not only who has the best physical constitution that counts, but also which team adopts the best race strategy. And that could be the decisive advantage for Team Ineos on their Continental racing tyres. Because none of their competitors has two top contenders in the running.