PAU, France — Race leader Julian Alaphilippe held off defending champion Geraint Thomas to win the only individual time trial stage of this Tour de France on Friday, a stunning victory to raise French hopes that he could hold his advantage all the way to Paris next week.
Cheered on by boisterous crowds hammering on roadside barriers, Alaphilippe sprang a surprise in his margin of victory on the tricky, hilly, turn-filled loop south of Pau, with spectacular views of the Pyrenees.
Having previously predicted that he’d lose time to Thomas, an expert in the race against the clock, Alaphilippe stunned even himself by adding 14 seconds to his lead over the second-place Welshman.
“It’s incredible,” Alaphilippe said, adding that his performance reduced members of his team to tears. “I didn’t think I’d win. … “I was transported by the yellow jersey.”
His second stage victory of this Tour — he also was victorious on Stage 3 — came 100 years to the day since the Tour first awarded a yellow jersey, to Frenchman Eugene Christophe on July 19, 1919. Alaphilippe has held the race lead for nine days, wowing French fans crossing fingers and toes for their first homegrown champion since Bernard Hinault in 1985.
Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP / Getty Images
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All eyes turn to the Pyrenees to see whether Alaphilippe can continue his dream race on Saturday ascending the legendary Tourmalet, the first of seven climbs to above 6,500 feet in the highest Tour in the race’s 116-year history. Alaphilippe’s lead of 1 minute, 26 seconds over Thomas could melt like the Pyrenees’ last snows in the July heat if he cracks on the long uphill finish and, next week, in the Alps.
“There’s a long way to go and a lot of hard stages to come now,” Thomas said.
Alaphilippe has said he expects to suffer in the high mountains, where the likes of Thomas and specialist climbers are expected to shine. But given how Alaphilippe has continued to confound expectations with his punchy riding and gritty determination to stay in yellow, fewer will be predicting he can’t ride up the Champs-Elysees in the lead on July 28.
Belgian rider Thomas De Gendt, third In Stage 13, was among those saying Alaphilippe could go all the way, after his strength in Pau.
“He can surprise everybody,” De Gendt said.
John Leicester and Samuel Petrequin are Associated Press writers.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Alaphilippe-wins-time-trial-and-keeps-Tour-yellow-14109749.php.