FOIX, France -- A day after Simon Yates won Stage 15, the Tour de France takes a break Monday in the southern city of Nimes with the winner still very much in doubt. With five days of real racing left before the parade stage that ends in Paris, here are five through-lines to follow in one of the most intriguing, unpredictable Tours of recent years:
Is this the end of the yellow brick road?
It took multiple attacks on the ascent of the Prat d'Albis to finally make overall leader Julian Alaphilippe look vulnerable at the end of a long, climbing-heavy Stage 15 in the Pyrenees. Still, the 27-year-old Deceuninck-Quick Step rider was able to hang in with more experienced Grand Tour leaders most of the way and will keep the yellow jersey into the third week -- meeting the team's objective at the start of the day. "I'm beginning to pay for all the effort I've put in, and that's logical,'' Alaphilippe told French television. "I've said this before and I'll say it again: It's all a bonus for me. I'm not getting too full of myself. I'm going to keep fighting, but if I continue to lose time, it's not devastating.''
Thibaut Pinot looks increasingly like the French flag-bearer
The Groupama-FDJ leader moved within the 2-minute mark of Alaphilippe with his aggressive push on the final climb, an important psychological and tangible barrier. He picked up 1:22 and sits in fourth place, 1:50 back. He's in great form physically and appears ready to defy his past history of disappointment in Grand Tours. His young domestique, or support rider, David Gaudu, has been solid in the mountains, and there are two summit finishes in the Alps that, as Alaphilippe said, are tailor-made for Pinot. Not surprisingly, Alaphilippe said he hopes that if the yellow jersey has to go to someone else, it'll be his countryman.
Who will be the tip of the spear for Ineos?
After two straight days of time losses, defending champion Geraint Thomas (1:35 off the lead) asserted himself Sunday on the Prat d'Albis, carved into Alaphilippe's advantage and looked strong enough to keep his team leader's mantle even though his super-domestique Egan Bernal of Colombia finished ahead of him on the stage and cut the gap between them by more than half, by 58 to 27 seconds. Bernal keeps repeating that he's fine with his place in the pecking order. No one expects Ineos to tip its hand, but on paper, Bernal is definitely still Plan B.
Don't sleep on these riders
Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands, third wheel in the overall standings at the moment at 1:47 back, and his Jumbo-Visma team continue to look unshakeable at altitude. Germany's Emanuel Buchmann is lurking at 2:14 behind and has, as my colleague Neal Rogers of the CyclingTips website puts it, "the cloak of invisibility'' with almost zero attention or pressure. After several obvious tactical disasters, Movistar executed today and Spain's Mikel Landa can't be counted out for a podium bid. If Alaphilippe goes backwards in the Alps, the overall standings will tighten very swiftly, and with Ineos less able to dictate events than it has in the recent past, other teams will be emboldened.
The road ahead
Temperatures are forecast to soar to 100 degrees Monday through Wednesday in Nimes, making the 110-mile circuit stage that starts and ends there a grueling test even for the overall contenders who will be trying to take it easy and let a breakaway or sprint finish unfold. Then come four days in the Alps with multiple forays of over 6,500 feet of altitude and two summit finishes. The race will be in rare air in multiple ways.