Geraint Thomas said on Saturday night he believed Julian Alaphilippe deserved a podium spot after his electrifying ride lit up the Tour de France – but the Welshman may well wonder if he cost him the top step.
The 106th Tour could in time go down as the start of the Egan Bernal era, but it will be remembered by those who watched for Alaphilippe’s stunning 14-day spell in yellow, which saw a stage hunter defy daily predictions that the next day would be the one where he cracked.
A race which drew comparisons with the classics of the late 1980s for entertainment value mostly had the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider to thank – the joker in the pack who made all the main favourites think again.
“I don’t think it was the parcours,” Thomas said when asked why this had been the most open Tour for years.
“I think it was the fact Alaphilippe started so strong and had such a big advantage. Big hats off to him. He was incredible how he stepped up and fought to the very end.
“I think he was fifth in the end but he deserved to be on the podium. It was an incredible ride and I think that was the reason the race was raced so differently.”
Thomas’ team-mate Bernal was unquestionably a worthy winner. The Colombian defied his tender age to ride intelligently over the three weeks, timing his attacks in the mountains to draw out all the advantage he would need.
But if it were not for Alaphilippe, only dislodged from yellow on stage 19 and dropped from second to fifth on the penultimate day, it is easy to imagine Thomas having taken control far earlier, allowing Team Ineos to shut down the race and defend the jersey to Paris in their trademark style.
That Alaphilippe took yellow in Champagne country on stage three was no surprise – Mitchelton-Scott sports director Matt White said the day suited him so much “he may have designed it himself” – but few saw it lasting more than a few days.
He was expected to crack on stage six to La Planche des Belles Filles, the moment when Thomas put in a late dig to assert his status as favourite amongst the main contenders, but though Alaphilippe surrendered yellow that day, there was no major time loss and he would take it back 48 hours later.
Fine, we thought. He will lose it in the stage 13 time trial instead.
Thomas looked superb in racing around the 27km circuit in Pau at a speed of 47kmh, taking one minute 22 seconds out of his team-mate Bernal to seemingly end any discussion of team leadership.
But his hopes of taking yellow that day were obliterated as Alaphilippe tore up the 17 per cent gradients of the final climb to deliver a stunning stage victory, adding 14 seconds to his lead.
Not the time trial? Then surely the Pyrenees.
On the Tourmalet and then the road to Foix, there was the sight of Alaphilippe, doggedly sticking to the wheels and emptying himself to preserve his jersey while Thomas lost contact.
That reopened the questions at Team Ineos over who was their strongest rider, just as they were realising they would need to get creative to dislodge ‘Loulou’ as attacks from others – most notably Thibaut Pinot – served as reminders that Ineos could not simply bide their time.
It was all building to a wonderful crescendo in the Alps where a three-day block of brutal climbing would draw out the strongest man.
Sadly, stage 19 ended with a terrible sense of anti-climax. Pinot climbed into a team car and out of fourth place with a leg injury before the weather forced an early end to a day that left so many what ifs, buts and maybes that a wonderful Tour did not deserve.
Bernal ended the day in yellow, reward for another attack, this one at the highest point of the race.
The Iseran, 2,770 metres above sea level, looked like bread and butter to a rider born and raised at 2,600 metres, and he took a decisive advantage in the race.
But if it was a let down in terms of drama, it was an even bigger let down for the French.
Before the race began, L’Equipe ran a front page with pictures of Pinot and Romain Bardet saying, ‘Now or Never’, but Pinot ended the race in tears while Bardet finished almost half an hour down, consoling himself with the polka dot jersey.
As Sir Dave Brailsford and his team celebrated on the Champs-Elysees once again, France could only think back to Alaphilippe’s glorious run, and dream that it might happen again.