Merci Julian, merci Thibaut: French heartache in the end but pride restored as hunt for a hero goes on

For almost two hot, balmy weeks he had France believing. Believing that they’d finally see one of their own on the top step of the podium at THEIR race.

His swashbuckling style, his easy nature, the eyebrows to the camera after meeting French President Emmanuel Macron. It was like he was from another era.

They’d been plenty of pretenders since Bernard Hinault took the acclaim on the Champs Elyseé back in 1985 but this one seemed unlikely to match the Badger’s exploits.

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He wasn’t a grand tour rider in the traditional sense, a former King of the Mountain but someone who could take on the might of Team Ineos? Bah, fanciful dreams. Sure, he’d keep it a couple of days but we all knew he’d never get to Paris with the yellow jersey on his back… would he?

His own DS, Wilfried Pieters, expect him to lose time in the stage 13 ITT in Pau. He didn’t. In fact, we won the thing and extended his advantage, something he’d go on to do with another monumental effort on the Tourmalet.

But was this desire to keep pushing on his ultimate undoing? Mitchelton-Scott DS Matt White thought he’d lose a huge chunk of time by the time the race reached the Alps.

It didn’t quite pan out that way but while Alaphilippe was still in yellow at the end of that first Alpine stage into Valloire, the cracks were beginning to show.

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His luck – self-made and entirely deserved – ran out two days out from Paris. Eventual winner Egan Bernal took off on the climb to the Col de l’Iseran and France’s hero was in big trouble.

Bernal was long gone, a minute or so in front of a group containing teammate Geraint Thomas and two ahead of Alaphilippe. The Deceuninck Quick-Step rider, in all honesty, needed divine intervention.

The weather Gods tried, dumping hail on the road into Valloire and causing a mudslide which would end the stage early. Times at the top of the Iseran would be taken and Bernal moved into yellow, 48 seconds ahead.

Alaphilippe didn’t look best pleased as he descended like a demon, desperate to reach the Thomas group.

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But it was probably the best he could have hoped for – the climb to Valloire, in all honesty, would have only put Bernal further out of reach.

Alaphilippe was all smiles despite his fate although a thrown bottle in the privacy of the team car perhaps revealed his real emotions.

His compatriot Thibaut Pinot had suffered even worse luck and long before the weather wreaked its havoc.

Struggling with an injury picked up on the run into Gap – a rather nasty sounding muscle tear – he tried to get himself patched up by the medical car and peddle on.

It wasn’t to be – haemorrhaging time and struggling to move his left leg, the game was up. He admitted defeat just a few hundred metres down the road.

It was a heartbreaking end to a bright Tour for the Groupama-FDJ man who, despite getting caught on the wrong side of a split in the crosswinds on stage 10, had managed to drag himself back into contention with superb performances in the Pyrenees which included that remarkable win at the summit of the Tourmalet.

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Sitting pretty in fifth, within touching distance of a first Tour podium since 2014 and only his second Grand Tour top three, it seemed to all that Pinot had finally discovered some comfortable in his home race.

So the sight of Pinot, tears streaming down his cheek, teammate William Bonnet desperately trying to console him as he climbed into the FDJ car, was akin to something from a Shakespearean tragedy played out on an Alpine hillside.

It also doesn’t do anything to dispell the myth that Pinot’s got some sort of curse over him when it comes to the Grand Boucle – he’s not finished any of the last three editions he’s started and didn’t even make the start line last year after a bout of fatigue and pneumonia ended his 2018 Giro early.

With Pinot out of the picture and just the penultimate stage to go, France needed a fresh miracle.

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It wasn’t to come.

Alaphilippe had talked down his chances for so long but he knew the game was up. He’d regained the yellow jersey once but there was no way he’d do it again. Not without a team around him.

The shortened penultimate stage into Val Thorens finished him off and with it France’s hope of ending a 34-year drought was gone.

Alaphilippe lost contact with 13km to go and eventually rolled in three minutes down on the yellow jersey group having slipped off the podium and into fifth after Jumbo Visma’s Laurens De Plus upped the pace to secure Steven Kruiswijk a top-three finish.

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Heartbreaking? Yes. But unexpected? Probably not.

A fifth-placed finish, especially given how ill-equipped his Deceuninck Quick-Step team was to fight a proper GC fight is nothing short of remarkable.

To watch Alaphilippe mature into a possible future winner was a joy to behold.

Will he fulfil the potential or was this summer’s performance a weird quirk of a Tour lacking a couple of blockbuster names? We might have a wait to find out.

But there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind that the affable 27-year-old’s stock is sky-high.

If he can channel himself in the right way – and Patrick Lefevere builds a team to support his obvious ambitions – then one day we may just see him on the Champs Elysee in yellow.

Meanwhile, France may still be looking for its yellow jersey-winning hero but in Alaphilippe and Pinot this summer, they got a sign that one might not be too far away…

Main image by Pauline Ballet, courtesy of ASO.

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