TIGNES, France — In an instant, and just as it was becoming even more thrilling, the most exciting Tour de France in decades became truly bizarre, and got a new leader — Egan Bernal of Colombia — who looks all but certain to hold the yellow jersey to Paris on Sunday.
A violent hailstorm threw cycling’s greatest race into chaos Friday, forcing organizers to cut short a nail-biting stage in the high Alps because riders were speeding, unbeknownst to them, headlong toward a road that had suddenly become covered with ice and giant puddles and cut in half by a rock slide.
Concerned for riders’ safety on mountain roads that can be dangerous at the best of times, race organizers made an on-the-spot and rare decision that the stage couldn’t continue.
The shock wave was immediate and heavy in repercussions. Unable to reach the planned finish at the ski station of Tignes, organizers decided that riders’ placings would instead be based on their time at the top of the highest mountain pass of this Tour — the Iseran, at 9,090 feet above sea level — which leading riders, but not all, had just scaled when the race was stopped.
And just like that, Bernal found himself in the yellow jersey. He flew away from Julian Alaphilippe on the climb and reached the top 2 minutes, 10 seconds ahead of the Frenchman, who had held the race lead for a total of 14 days.
Photo: Anne-Christine Poujoulat / Getty Images
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Not only is Bernal the new leader, but he also now looks almost certain to stay in yellow all the way to Paris, because Stage 20 on Saturday will also be shortened, again because of expected storms and landslides. The truncated route of just 37 miles, shorn of two of its three planned climbs, is not likely to be hard enough for Bernal’s rivals to make him crack.
Bernal leads Alaphilippe by 48 seconds. Defending champion Geraint Thomas is third, 1:16 behind Bernal.
Still, from the way he stormed up the Iseran, few could argue that Bernal would be an undeserving winner. Having powered up the climb, Bernal was speeding down hairpins on the other side, with Alaphilippe hot on his trail, hoping to save his race lead, when they received the order to stop racing.
“I don’t really know what happened. I was speeding, attacking, and everything was going well and then they told me to stop. I didn’t want to stop,” Bernal said through an interpreter on French television. “When they told me that I was the race leader and I had the yellow jersey, I couldn’t believe it and I still can’t believe it.”
Organizers scrambled to deal with the disarray and riders clambered off their bikes, not immediately sure what was going on. There was no winner of Stage 19, because no one had reached the finish.
“This Tour is crazy,” race director Christian Prudhomme said. “We would never have imagined a day like this.”
John Leicester and Samuel Petrequin are Associated Press writers.
This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/sports/article/Egan-Bernal-storms-into-Tour-yellow-amid-icy-chaos-14189239.php.