Stage 19 of the Tour de France ended in chaos as hailstorms caused a landslide and forced organisers to stop the race before the final climb.
Organisers declared that times would be taken from the top of the Col de l’Iseran, putting Team Ineos rider Egan Bernal into the yellow jersey after he crested the highest point of the Tour first after attacking out of the group of favourites on the 126.5km stage to Tignes.
Though the peloton could not ride the final climb, Bernal was taken by car to receive his maillot jaune on the podium in Tignes before any official results had been published.
“It’s incredible,” said the 22-year-old, now the clear favourite to become the first Colombian to win the Tour, and the youngest rider in the post-war era.
“When I had the jersey and the lion, I wanted to cry. Tomorrow, I will do my best, but it still hasn’t sunk in yet.”
Bernal had attacked after Ineos team-mate Geraint Thomas and Jumbo-Visma’s Steven Kruijswijk made moves in what proved a successful bid to shake off race leader Julian Alaphilippe, who cracked midway up the Iseran.
When official results for the day did appear, they showed Bernal 48 seconds ahead of Alaphilippe, with Thomas listed one minute and 16 seconds down in third place. Kruijswijk is fourth, one minute 28 down, with Emanuel Buchmann a further 27 seconds back in fifth.
Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford said he had mixed feelings about taking the yellow jersey in such circumstances, insisting it was reward for the way his team approached the stage.
“Fortune favours the brave at the end of the day,” said Brailsford.
“We were always going to take today on and I thought the guys rode really well, to be honest…
“We don’t control the weather. In one way, I’m really happy but in another way, I’m still really concerned for everyone else out there.”
Asked if the weather had helped his team win the Tour, as now seems likely, Brailsford replied: “It didn’t. No, we’ll win the Tour de France because of how we ride.”
Commissaries made the call to stop the race after the storms led to a landslide in the valley below Val-d’Isere, with the race route covered in rubble.
Alaphilippe looked frustrated as he climbed into a Deceuninck-Quick Step car as he would have hoped to have taken time back on the long descent, though it will never be known if he could have avoided further losses on the final climb up to Tignes.
It was yet another dramatic twist in the Tour, described as the most exciting edition since 1989, and could well be a decisive one.
Bernal now needs only to survive one final mountain stage on Saturday before potentially celebrating his first Grand Tour victory in Paris a day later.
The neutralisation came as a huge blow to Thomas’ hopes of defending his title. The Welshman may have hoped to bridge the gap to his team-mate in the final 30 kilometres but was denied that opportunity.
Thomas was seen talking to Tour director Christian Prudhomme in Val-d’Isere, but the Frenchman could only gesticulate that there was nothing he could do given the conditions of the road up ahead, where diggers and ploughs were working to clear a path.
It proved a brutal day for French fans, and not just those waiting in Tignes for a race that never arrived.
As Alaphilippe’s grip on yellow was finally loosened, Thibaut Pinot’s dream of becoming the first French winner of the Tour de France for 34 years was ended in cruel circumstances when the Groupama-FDJ rider was forced to abandon just 36 kilometres into the stage.
Pinot had already been seen receiving medical treatment at the back of the peloton but continued to rapidly lose time, and his team revealed it was the result of a muscular injury first suffered on Wednesday when he struck his left leg with a handlebar.
“As he avoided a crash, his left knee hit the handlebar and the pain just got worse,” Groupama-FDJ sports director Philippe Mauduit said.
“We’ve been hoping for an improvement but we knew this morning that it would be complicated if the race was hard. He’s been in pain since the start. It wasn’t possible to keep riding.”