Julian Alaphilippe aces first real Alps test, remains the Tour de France leader

Even if the consensus is he will eventually falter, Julian Alaphilippe continues to lead the Tour de France. Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

SAINT-MICHEL-DE-MAURIENNE, France -- Today will be the day Julian Alaphilippe will pop, go backward, lose the yellow jersey. That sentiment has filled the thought balloon over the Tour de France for a full week now, through the individual time trial in Pau, over the Pyrenees, through uphill and downhill finishes, flats and intense heat.

And yet Alaphilippe refuses to go willingly to his own wake.

In Thursday's Stage 18, the French sensation may have benefitted from tactical indecisiveness by his main rivals, who waited until late in the last ascent on the Col du Galibier to attack and gauge his legs. He may have benefitted from the course layout itself: The final descent to Valloire preceded two mountaintop finishes in the Alps that arguably allow overall contenders to shove all their chips to those spots.

Alaphilippe, who cracked toward the top of the climb of the Galibier -- the day's third over 2,000 meters, or roughly 6,500 feet elevation, and its highest -- used every scintilla of his ferocious descending ability to keep the lead.

"I know that descent a little, but I didn't really remember every switchback,'' said Alaphilippe, who rides for the Belgian Deceuninck-Quick Step team. "I just disconnected my brain. I think I was at my limit in every one.''

Ahead of him, two Colombian riders were making their signature marks at altitude in the Alps, a point of pride in their mountainous home country.

Movistar's Nairo Quintana hoisted himself up from an otherwise erratic Tour and won the stage with a solo attack. But it was Team Ineos' Egan Bernal who had the far more consequential day, making a move on the approach to the summit that no other rider could or would follow, including his Ineos teammate, defending Tour champion Geraint Thomas.

Bernal caught the remnants of a breakaway group on the way to Valloire and was the top finisher among riders with Tour title aspirations. He leapfrogged from fifth to second place, 5 seconds ahead of Thomas and 1:30 behind Alaphilippe. Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands, putative best French overall hope Thibaut Pinot, and Germany's Emanuel Buchmann remain bunched within 44 seconds of him.

With three summits left in the rare air over 2,000 meters -- two of them finish lines -- Bernal's prowess on the Galibier would seem to answer the Ineos leadership question that has been hanging for much of the Tour, although predictions have been a fool's game since the race started on the first Saturday of July.

Whatever the internal dynamics, it was a good day for the team formerly known as Sky, which has had an uncharacteristically bumpy road in this edition of the Tour.

Thomas has crashed three times but escaped serious injury. And Ineos began Stage 18 a man down after road captain Luke Rowe was ejected from the race Wednesday along with Jumbo-Visma's Tony Martin after the two tangled late in Stage 17. Rowe wouldn't have been a big factor on the steepest climbs, but any loss of manpower is undesirable at this point in the race.

The British powerhouse was able to keep two support riders with Bernal and Thomas at the front of the peloton in the crucial segments Thursday, a bit of déjà vu for a team accustomed to controlling the race in previous years. But no matter how many times Ineos paraphrases the cycling adage that it's good to have two cards to play, it was Bernal who showed his hand first once again, as he did on Prat d'Albis in the Pyrenees.

Thomas' surge off the small group of overall contenders a few minutes later was the one that made Alaphilippe grimace and crank awkwardly as he tried not to let too much of a gap open up. A team soigneur -- the staffers charged with care and feeding -- gave Alaphilippe a light push on the back in the narrow corridor of fans screaming their encouragement.

As Alaphilippe came over the top, he allowed himself an energy gel and 10 seconds of recovery, and then plunged into the void. Just for fun, when he caught the five-man group ahead of him that included Thomas and Groupama-FDJ's Pinot, he slalomed through them in less than a minute and stayed on the front so he could carve his own line. "Because I love going fast downhill,'' Alaphilippe added, somewhat superfluously. "The only mistake I had to avoid was crashing.''

After the podium ceremony, as if Alaphilippe's exploit hadn't been theatrical enough, the rider took the shirt off his back -- yes, that yellow one -- and wrapped it around a small boy who appeared to be shivering in the cold, blustery conditions at Valloire. Alaphilippe appeared at the post-stage press conference in his normal blue-and-white kit, and a team spokesman said Deceuninck would request a replacement from race organizers ASO.

"I never imagined this ... to be three days from Paris, in yellow,'' said Alaphilippe, a proven force in the sport in shorter races whom few picked as a possible candidate to end France's 34-year wait for a Tour champion. His bubble may burst Friday, but it will float in memory for some time.