Colombia’s Egan Bernal moved into the yellow jersey in controversial and chaotic circumstances after landslides and a catastrophic hail storm forced Tour de France organisers to cut short Stage 19 before the final climb to Tignes.
Confusion reigned over the Tour on Friday as the most engrossing stage of the race so far was curtailed while Team Ineos youngster Bernal led having dropped his general classification rivals - including the yellow jersey Julian Alaphilippe and teammate Geraint Thomas, the defending champion - with a stinging attack on the Col de l’Iseran.
With Deceuninck-QuickStep’s Alaphilippe - riding his fifteenth day in yellow - trailing lone leader Bernal by over two minutes atop the summit of the highest peak of the Tour, the news soon filtered through on the descent towards the eye of the storm that the stage has been neutralised.
Astonishing weather conditions at the finish of Stage 19
The riders - upon whom not even a drop of rain had fallen since the start of the 126.5km stage from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne - met the decision with incredulity, oblivious to the frantic actions of diggers working on clearing the road ahead.
Having caught Bernal on the descent, Briton’s Simon Yates - the double stage winner from the Mitchelton-Scott team - gesticulated wildly with an official on the back of a motorcycle; Colombian Rigoberto Uran EF Education First argued with fellow rider Vincenzo Nibali of Bahrain Merida in the Thomas chase group behind.
Stopped mid-flow on the long descent during which he would have hoped to slash his deficit to Bernal ahead of the decisive final climb, Alaphilippe, meanwhile, turned round and looked at his team car with a look of dismay on his face following news that the times for the stage would be taken at the top of the penultimate climb, the Iseran.
Watch furious Alaphilippe react as Stage 19 cancelled due to hail
That gave Bernal the notional stage win by five seconds - and the yellow jersey by 45 seconds over Alaphilippe as the Frenchman conceded the race lead to the Colombian with just one competitive day of the race remaining, Saturday’s 130km Stage 20 from Albertville to Val Thorens. The officials later confirmed that there would be no winner of Stage 19.
It capped a torrid day for the host nation, whose great hope Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) earlier abandoned the race in tears after succumbing to a knee injury which saw him distanced on the first of five categorised climbs.
Pinot, who was sitting in fifth place on GC following his triumph on the Tourmalet, received treatment by the race doctor before climbing off his bike and slumping into his team car with 87km to go. The joys of Bastille Day less than a week earlier suddenly seemed far away.
'Heartbreak for France, heartbreak for Pinot' - Thibaut Pinot in tears as he abandons the Tour
At the point of Pinot’s withdrawal, a large break of 29 riders was forming off the front of the main pack, with Italy’s Damiano Caruso (Bahrain Merida) going on to scale the next two peaks in pole position to pile the pressure on another Frenchman, the polka dot jersey Romain Bardet (Ag2R-La Mondiale).
But the break was given very little leeway by the slimming peloton, which hit the mammoth Col d’Iseran with everything left to play for - and the lure of an eight-second time bonus over the summit for the favourites.
It was Bernal’s teammate Thomas who drew first blood on the highest paved pass in the Alps, the Welshman's attack putting Alaphilippe under immediate pressure.
'It's time!' - Watch the moment Thomas attacks on Stage 19
Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) put in the next attack as he rode clear with Thomas and the German Emanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe). Bernal soon joined the party as Alaphilippe sunk like a stone, the elastic keeping his yellow jersey dream alive finally stretched to the limit.
Following teammate Thomas’ softener, Bernal then put in his decisive dig, the 22-year-old dropping all the GC favourites as he rode on to join the remaining riders from the break - Yates, Uran, Nibali and the French national champion Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic).
Bernal break: Is this the moment he takes control of Tour?
Bernal and Yates dropped the others 2km from the summit before the youngest rider in the race soloed clear just as the time gaps put him into the virtual yellow jersey.
Picking up the eight bonus seconds and the Souvenir Henri Desgrange prize over the summit, Bernal’s lead was 50 seconds over the chasing Thomas group, with the battling Alaphilippe passing over at 2’07”.
But with 37km - and a long descent to the foot of the final climb - remaining, anything could have happened in what was shaping up to be an electric finale.
The weather, however, was having other ideas, the stage suddenly called off as the most engrossing Tour in recent years was brought to a standstill as it took on another twist, albeit one which may shroud the outcome in doubt for the days, months and years to come.
It took a long time for the dust to settle and for the road to be cleared so that the riders could finally make it to the finish town at Tignes for the formalities and stage presentations.
The provisional decision by the race jury saw Bernal finish the stage ahead of Yates and Barguil - but no winner was declared. The Colombian also swapped his white jersey for yellow with a 45-second lead over Alaphilippe going into Stage 20.
Bernal’s teammate Thomas is third at 1’03”, Kruijswijk fourth at 1’15” and Buchmann fifth at 1’42” - the race still evenly poised ahead of a final day in the Alps which fans will hope explodes, if not meteorologically then on a sporting plane.
Stage 19: Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne to Tignes - until it happened
What this short and spiky 126.5km key stage lacked in length it made up in vertical gain with the riders set to tackle the Alps’ highest paved pass in the form of the fearsome Col d’Iseran.
As expected the moves came from the gun with a deluxe break featuring Italy’s Vincenzo Nibali going clear on a small uncategorised climb in the Maurienne valley.
The 2014 Tour champion from Bahrain Merida was joined by Ireland’s Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates) and Spaniards Pello Bilbao (Astana) and birthday boy Jesus Herrada (Cofidis) to open up a small gap ahead of the Cat.3 Cote de Saint-Andre.
Martin led the quartet over the summit with a small gap on the pack, which had exploded in a flurry of activity following attacks from world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar) and Colombian Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First).
The race then witnessed some emotional scenes as Frenchman Pinot dropped back to the race doctor to receive treatment on his left leg. With the Groupama-FDJ rider in a world of pain, a new 29-man group formed around the original leading quartet.
Top 10 riders Valverde and Uran were present in the move along with Nibali’s Bahrain Merida teammate Damiano Caruso, Movistar duo Marc Soler and Andrey Amador, Trek-Segafredo’s Giulio Ciccone and the French national champion Warren Barguil (Arkea-Samsic).
But all eyes were not on the front of the race but, sadly, off the back with the sorry sight of Stage 14 winner Pinot in floods of tears while being consoled by teammate William Bonnet. Tipped as a potential winner of the race, Pinot soon got off his bike and into the car, his third withdrawal from his four last appearances.
Back with the break, Nibali helped pace teammate Caruso over the Cat.2 Montee d’Aussios and the Cat.3 Col de la Madeleine in pole position to move within 19 KOM points of Romain Bardet’s lead in the polka dot jersey standings.
With 40 points available on the summit of the Iseran, Caruso hoped that Alaphilippe was not the only Frenchman facing stiff opposition for his classification jersey...
Highlights of crazy Stage 19 as Bernal and hail strike
But with the break’s advantage never stretching above the two-minute mark - and the battle for yellow kicking off definitively and passionately on the race’s biggest climb - the polka-dot sideshow was somewhat overshadowed as circumstances saw Bardet retaining the jersey without too much ado.
In the event, it was Bernal not Bernal's KOM points over the summit but his time on the Iseran that ultimately proved the most key figure on the day, and what could well deliver Colombia its first ever victory in cycling’s biggest stage race.
While Bernal was not granted the stage win for his performance in the curtailed stage, he leapfrogged Alaphilippe into yellow with a provisional swing of 2’15”, putting him 45 seconds clear ahead of Stage 20.
When he finally takes stock on a chaotic day, Alaphilippe, while understandably aggrieved about losing the maillot jaune in such circumstances, may feel that the decision to neutralise the GC times on the Iseran may have made his chances of a podium finish in Paris more possible.
For given how much time he had lost on the penultimate climb, the Frenchman could well have gone further into the red on the Cat.1 ascent to Tignes. It’s something we will never know.
Coming up: Stage 20 - Albertville to Van Thorens
Talk of what-ifs may be rendered irrelevant, though, on Saturday with another short but incredibly sharp stage which features more uphill kilometres than flat and downhill combined.
The 130km ride tackles the 20km Cormet de Roselend and the Cote de Longefoy ahead of a final 33.4km climb to Val Thorens where loses could be huge - especially for a rider who, like Alaphilippe, has been defying expectations since the Pyrenees.
With Bernal in yellow, it will be interesting to see if Team Ineos protect the Colombian’s lead or let the youngster do battle with Thomas, for whom a second Tour crown is not yet impossible.