Nimes - A look at the form of the top five contenders for Tour de France victory ahead of three decisive Alpine stages starting on Thursday.
The daredevil 27-year-old classics specialist has been the star of the Tour. The number-one ranked cyclist in the world swept the French public up in a wave of enthusiasm after his swashbuckling attacks through the Champagne hills in the first week. Experts expected him to flame out quickly but he then stormed the Pau time-trial to inflict a psychological wound on rivals. Then came a personal triumph, coming second on the mythical Tourmalet mountain summit way above the treeline, leaving the Pyrenees 1min 35sec ahead of second placed Geraint Thomas. The former soldier showed his first sign of weakness on the final Pyrenean stage, but has otherwise tapped into deep resources whatever the challenge.
No 2 at 1min 35sec
The affable 33-year-old defending champion is well placed to take a second title as he waits for Alaphilippe to falter in the Alps so he can concentrate on dealing with Thibaut Pinot, seen as a bigger danger. The way he handled his stage eight fall brought widespread praise, and in the skirmishes atop La Planche des Belles Filles, he launched an impressive attack to put time into his key rivals. He then led Ineos as they joined the Alaphilippe-sparked 38km rampage that blew five rivals out of contention on the way to Albi. But Thomas fluffed his lines at the Pau time-trial complaining of overheating, and suffered weakness where he was expected to show strength, at the Col du Tourmalet, conceding time to Alaphilippe for a second day. Thomas fell again on Tuesday, a third tumble so far, and appears unsure who his real rival is.
No 3 at 1min 47sec
This quiet, clever 32-year-old has been under the radar after he suffered on La Planche des Belles Filles climb, which he dislikes, and because he was unable to follow Thibaut Pinot at the second Pyrenean stage. But the Dutch climber always rides best in the third week and has based his entire Tour preparations around repeated ascents of the final 33km climb to Val Thorens on Saturday. Coming out of the Pyrenees, however, he is well poised to challenge for final victory. He has too strong climbers in his team in George Bennet and Laurens de Plus to back him up, and few could argue that Jumbo have been the form outfit of 2019. Detractors say he always has a bad day at some stage.
No 4 at 1min 50sec
The emotional Frenchman is a legendary climber but a nervy descender and says he dislikes the heat, of which he'll get a good dose this week as a heatwave engulfs France. After gaining time on the early stages to lead the Ineos pair of Thomas and Egan Bernal he got caught napping on the narrow road to Albi losing a 1min 36sec advantage to Thomas, Bernal and others. But with true Gallic flair Pinot vowed to win on the Tourmalet and did so with a volcanic explosion of joy. He again gained time on the second Pyrenean mountain stage to set himself up as the man to beat in the mountains. There is a huge groundswell of public support for the handsome FDJ captain, who is cheered throughout each stage.
No 5 at 2min 02sec
There is an element of still waters run deep about the Ineos prodigy. Team principal Dave Brailsford appears to be keeping 22-year-old Bernal under wraps and so far the gifted all rounder has been exposed to almost zero red zone effort with the exception of a poor time trial. A souce in the Bernal entourage told AFP that Bernal professed to being on exceptional form heading into his comfort zone at altitude in the Alps. "If some time I have to go full gas, I can and I will," said the tough, self-confident former mountain biker. Brailsford has told the Colombian to stay with defending champion Geraint Thomas if he has any doubts, which could be interpreted as 'go for it when you are ready'. And Brailsford is on record as saying "boy oh boy is he ready." He also appears to have a knack for saving ruthless moves for the right moment, and as Tour legend Raymond Poulidor said "what a climber he is."