EPERNAY, France (AFP) – Julian Alaphilippe produced a magnificent show of power in Stage Three on Monday to give France its first win and take the overall lead in the 2019 Tour de France.
The win meant a French rider has the overall leader’s yellow jersey for the first time in five years.
The Deceuninck-Quick Step rider took a huge gamble with his long range effort.
He slipped away from the pack after vying for bonus seconds on the penultimate climb, assuming a daredevil, aerodynamic crouch at the crest and breaking clear.
By the time he crossed the Marne, still an agonising 10km through the vineyards from Epernay, he was almost a minute ahead.
Alaphilippe was strong enough to cling on and win by 26 seconds, despite a desperate effort from the pack to reel him in.
“I was really up for it today, so when I saw the chance I went all in,” said a red-faced Alaphilippe after his third ever stage win and his first yellow jersey.
“I should have waited until the end, I know, but I just went full gas when I saw the gap.”
Amazingly, it is the first time a French rider has had the overall lead since Tony Gallopin wore yellow in 2014.
A small break in the chasing pack saw defending champion Geraint Thomas lose five seconds to his Team Ineos co-leader Colombian 22-year-old Egan Bernal and to French hope Thibaut Pinot.
“That climb where Alaphilippe went was steep and it was hard, but I just knew I didn’t have the legs to go for the bonus sprint,” Thomas said.
“Then it was just a case of getting to the finish and being safe,” said Thomas, whose Ineos team did much of the chasing.
The crowd on the last hill had been expecting a bare-knuckle struggle, but went wild as Alaphilippe came up alone and rose in his saddle to swagger over the last steep climb.
At the line, the 27-year-old former soldier had maintained enough power to establish a 20 second lead over Belgian prodigy Wout Van Aert in the overall standings.
“It’s actually only starting to sink in now that I have the jersey,” said Alaphilippe, who was close to tears.
The Tour crossed into France earlier in the stage after opening with two stages in Belgium.
“What a beautiful way to start the tour here in France,” he said.
“Having this on my back is something I’ll never forget, its the recompense of everything I have done since I first got on a bike.”
Overnight leader and surprise winner of the opening stage Mike Teunissen was dropped by the main pack at the moment of Alaphilippe’s attack and drifted home five minutes off the pace.
Slovak Peter Sagan took the sprint points green jersey in his bid to win it a record seventh time. In the mountain classification, Lotto-Soudal’s Tim Wellens, part of a group who broke at Binche, made a solo bid 50km from home that saw him garner enough hilltop points to take the polka dot jersey.
Rookie Van Aert, who has converted from cyclo-cross, held on to the best under-25’s white jersey as the buzz around him on his debut Tour increases.
Five-time Tour de France winner Eddy Merckx was on hand as fans gave him and the Tour a noisy send off at the small start town of Binche as the 2019 race took its Belgian bow.