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 was stopped early because of a hailstorm after French hopes had faded away.
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 and leads the world number one by 48 seconds on a devastating day for the host nation.
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, although Bernal was the biggest winner on the day, taking command of the race and settling the Team Ineos leadership conundrum after dominating again defending champion Geraint Thomas.
On what was effectively the penultimate stage, France’s hopes of a first home-grown winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985 came to a brutal, heartbreaking halt after Thibaut Pinot was also forced to abandon the race with a thigh injury.
“What a day. The landslide was 20-metres long and 50-cm thick so the organisers and the race jury decided to stop the race,” said Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme, who was also forced to cut Saturday’s 20th stage from 130km to 59km, making it a flat ride to the final 33km climb up to Val Thorens.
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 by hand from the top of Col de l’Iseran and gave Bernal a decent lead going into Saturday’s final mountain stage, as he seeks to become the first Colombian to win the Tour.
“I had attacked and I was told to stop but I said ‘no, no, not now’, I didn’t want to stop, I didn’t know what had happened. When I was told I was the overall leader I couldn’t believe it and I still cannot believe it,” said Bernal, who at 22 can become the youngest Tour winner since the end of World War Two.
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.
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, 1:16 behind Bernal and said he would fully support his team mate.
“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.
‘IN OUR HANDS’
Team Ineos sports director Nicolas Portal said that Bernal would have liked the race to continue with one more hard 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.”
Pinot, widely regarded as the only rider able to challenge Bernal in the mountains, abandoned early in the stage with a left thigh injury.
He left the race in tears, with former winner Bradley Wiggins, witnessing the scene from a TV motor-bike, saying: “I’m heartbroken, it’s like watching a dog die.”
The Frenchman said he had been confident of launching a challenge before injury struck.
“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.
“It will take time for me to get over it but it’s the Tour.”
Bernal will defend his lead on Saturday, the last competitive day for the overall contenders.
“I’m waiting until tomorrow to think about the title. Tomorrow we will have to defend the yellow jersey,” he said.
(Editing by Toby Davis and Christian Radnedge)