GAP, France — Picture the final showdown in “High Noon.” But at more than a mile above sea level.
With an Alpine trilogy of stages including six climbs in rarefied air, forecasts of stormy weather and only 39 seconds separating five riders determined to topple yellow jersey holder Julian Alaphilippe, the next three days at cycling’s marquee race have the ingredients for a suspenseful conclusion.
Alaphilippe has become France’s national hero over the past two weeks, raising hopes the host country will finally get its Tour champion after a 34-year wait.
After claiming the race lead by storm with a couple of well-time attacks followed with a shock victory in the race’s individual time trial, Alaphilippe surprisingly hung onto the coveted tunic in the Pyrenees last week.
But the odds are stacked against him in the Alps, a terrain with very long climbs that do not suit his punchy style. But “Ala-Panache” — the nickname he earned this summer — is ready.
“I can take punches in the mountains,” Alaphilippe said Wednesday after Matteo Trentin won Stage 17. “I’m looking forward to the Alps.”
If Alaphilippe fails to defend his 1-minute, 35-second lead, another Frenchman is ready to take over: Thibaut Pinot. The FDJ-Groupama leader demonstrated in the Pyrenees he was the best climber.
Pinot is among the five riders who can believe they have a chance to win the Tour on Sunday on the Champs-Elysees, alongside defending champion Geraint Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk, Egan Bernal and Emanuel Buchmann.
Thomas and Kruijswijk, who are second and third overall, were handed a blow Wednesday, losing one teammate each on disciplinary grounds. Race organizers said Thomas’ teammate Luke Rowe and Tony Martin, who rides in support of Kruijswijk, were kicked out following an altercation.