By Julien Pretot
TIGNES, France (Reuters) – Colombian Egan Bernal was catapulted into the overall lead of the Tour de France in dramatic circumstances on Friday as the 19th stage of the race, effectively the penultimate stage, was stopped early because of a hail storm.
Team Ineos rider Bernal, who began the day a minute and a half behind, had overhauled France’s Julian Alaphilippe during the climb up the Col de L’Iseran.
Alaphilippe began eating back into the lead with a brilliant descent, only to be told to stop riding after organisers called the race off because of the dangerous conditions ahead.
They later confirmed that there would be no stage winner for the first time in the race’s history.
There was confusion on the roads initially, as the riders were descending in ideal conditions, but up ahead even the use of bulldozers was unable to make the road safe, while a small landslide also made conditions hazardous.
The race timings were taken from the top of Col de l’Iseran and unofficial timings give Bernal a lead of 45 seconds going into Saturday’s final mountain stage, as he seeks to become the first Colombian to win the Tour.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas, who started the day 1:35 behind Alaphilippe, stayed third overall after reaching the Col de l’Iseran, 2,770 metres above sea level, about one minute adrift of Bernal.
Team Ineos sports director Nicolas Portal said that Bernal would have liked the race to continue with one more climb to come before the finish in Tignes.
“We had the race in our hands and Egan would have liked to ride the last climb but the riders’ safety comes first, ASO (organisers) did a great job,” he said.
“We wanted to smash it today and the guys were super motivated. It would have been ideal if the race could have continued because even if he had reduced the gap in the descent, Julian would have suffered in the last ascent.”
Ineos team manager Dave Brailsford added: “There has been a landslide, quite a considerable landslide and you have to make sure everyone is alright, there is bike racing then there is the health and safety of everybody.”
Alaphilippe, speaking from Val d’Isere, where the riders took shelter in a tunnel, conceded defeat.
“I was expecting this. I gave everything but I was beaten by a stronger rider,” the world number one said.
Alaphilippe had offered France their only chance to celebrate a first home-grown winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 after Thibaut Pinot, widely regarded as the only rider able to challenge Bernal in the mountains, abandoned early in the stage with a thigh injury.
Pinot left the race in tears, with former winner Bradley Wiggins, witnessing the scene from a TV motorbike, saying: “I’m heartbroken, it’s like watching a dog die.”
(Editing by Toby Davis)