By Julien Pretot
TIGNES, France (Reuters) – Egan Bernal looked set to become the first Colombian rider to win the Tour de France after claiming the lead – and the Team Ineos leadership — in dramatic conditions in a 19th stage that was cut short by a hailstorm and a landslide on Friday.
The Team Ineos rider attacked some five kilometres from the top of the Col de l’Iseran to drop a small pack of overall contenders and his lead increased as he crushed the pedals in a unique demonstration of climbing power.
France’s Julian Alaphilippe cracked as defending champion Geraint Thomas, Bernal’s team mate, sat in a reduced group that tried to bridge the gap with the 22-year-old Bernal, the third Colombian to wear the coveted yellow jersey after Victor Hugo Pena and Fernando Gaviria.
Down in the upcoming valley, however, massive hailstorm flooded the road that was completely blocked by a resulting landslide and organisers decided to stop the race and take the timings at top of the Iseran.
Bernal had already made the difference, having crested the Iseran, culminating at 2,770 metres, in first position with Alaphilippe more than two minutes behind after starting the day 1:30 ahead.
The Colombian also collected an eight-second bonus to end the day 48 seconds ahead of the world number one in the general classification with only Saturday’s 10th stage able to change the rankings.
“Fortune favours the brave at the end of the day. As we said this morning we were going to take it on,” said Team Ineos manager Dave Brailsford, who led Team Sky – the British outfit’s previous sponsor – to six of the last seven Tour de France titles.
“We’ve maybe not been the strongest that we’ve been all race, but today was the day. We thought if there was anywhere that we could make the difference it was on the Iseran.”
The result confirmed the British team’s stranglehold on the Tour even if they appeared less dominant this year in the absence of four-time champion Chris Froome.
“We executed a plan, with G going first, Egan went over the top,” said Brailsford.
“Who knows what would have happened after that. It was nice to get to the top of the Iseran in that situation which is what we were hoping for.”
Bernal’s move also confirmed that he was the strongest Ineos rider as he now holds a 1:16 advantage on Thomas, whom he has dominated in all four high mountain stages on this year’s Tour.
“Egan is in yellow so the main thing is he finishes the job. I haven’t seen any GC but for sure he’ll have a decent advantage so we fully support him now,” said Thomas.
Both riders had shared the team’s leadership so far.
Bernal made clear he was the leader, too.
“Doing this (Thomas attacking) would be crazy. I would respect his decision but I think the team will need to be careful and an attack from him would not make sense,” he said.
If Bernal was frustrated that the last climb up to Tignes, where he would have probably increased his lead over Alaphilippe, was cancelled on Friday, he also benefited from the withdrawal of Thibaut Pinot.
The Frenchman, who had dominated him in the Pyrenees last weekend, abandoned the race with a muscle injury which had him ride through the pain when Bernal beat his rivals in the first Alpine stage on Thursday.
It left the 29-year-old weeping about what might have been.
“I thought maybe I could make it but I didn’t. I felt that since Sunday in the Pyrenees I could do it and I knew I would have done it but we will never know,” Pinot told reporters.
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)