PAU, France -- Julian Alaphilippe, a Tour de France challenger hiding in plain sight, skidded sideways in an exuberant, showy stop past the finish line of Friday's time trial like a kid who'd just won neighborhood bragging rights.
He fell into the embrace of the Deceuninck-Quick Step team staff, and then dismounted, sat down and started laughing. And why not? The joke was on all the prognosticators whose only question before Stage 13 was how much time Alaphilippe would lose to defending champion Geraint Thomas and other riders considered more durable over a three-week race.
Instead, Alaphilippe had won the stage and gained another 14 seconds on Thomas, the next-fastest rider over the hilly 17-mile course. His cushion of 1 minute and 26 seconds could evaporate when he and his team come under what are sure to be multiple attacks in the high mountains, starting with Saturday's summit finish on the Col du Tourmalet.
But Alaphilippe has already done what many thought improbable: keep everyone guessing about his long-haul capabilities as the Tour rounds into its final week.
"I'm an actor and a spectator in what I'm doing," the 27-year-old Alaphilippe said as he made his way through a reception line of television and print interviews. He was trying to describe the surreal feeling of wearing the jersey for all but four days of the race, knowing that French hopes of ending a 35-year title shutout are embedded in the fabric. But in what has become a familiar refrain over the last few days, he also kept repeating that it wasn't wise to "dream too much."
Was that caution meant for himself? Was it meant for French fans? Is it a bit of acting by a rider who seems to be in the form of his life? In modern bike racing, top riders generally stay in one lane. Alaphilippe, regarded as a "puncher'' best suited to single-day or, at most, week-long races, seems to be winding up to try and go 15 rounds.
Friday's individual time trial occupied a curious place in this Tour de France: mid-race, short and hilly, not really a change of pace in a course heavily weighted toward climbers. It was important but not as decisive as it often has been when positioned later.
Slotted in the day after the initial foray into the Pyrenees -- a stage that ended with a long descent -- the prospect of the ITT prompted the overall contenders to table their ambitions. It got underway without world time trial champion Rohan Dennis of Australia, who quit the race without explanation Thursday. Another stage favorite, Wout van Aert, crashed heavily against a barrier on a turn close to the finish and had surgery to repair a lacerated right thigh, according to Belgian media.
Even with a less brilliant ride from Alaphilippe on Friday, the circuit that looped south from Pau and then clockwise back to the center city was too short for Thomas and other top riders to have stripped Alaphilippe of the lead. But this was the juncture where it was almost taken for granted that Thomas would assert himself.
"If he carries on like this, he'll win the Tour,'' said Thomas, the Welsh leader of Team Ineos, who knows Alaphilippe's dark horse position well, having occupied it in the 2018 Tour when he was supposed to play second violin to Chris Froome.
Several other contenders kept themselves within dreaming distance of both Alaphilippe and Thomas, notably Jumbo-Visma's Steven Kruijswijk (2:12 shy of Alaphilippe), Groupama-FDJ's Thibaut Pinot (3:04), who had borne the brunt of the French aspirations leading up to the Tour, and EF Education First leader Rigoberto Uran (3:22) of Colombia.
Both Pinot and Uran had lost time last Monday when crosswinds split the peloton and EF Education First's initial surge at the front backfired -- in general manager Jonathan Vaughters' words, "we own-goaled ourselves.''
Those teams and others are sure to ride aggressively Saturday, and again Sunday in a stage of unrelenting climbing leading to the second straight uphill finish on the Prat d'Albis near Foix. But Alaphilippe has an asset in his 24-year-old Spanish teammate Enric Mas, who finished second in last year's Vuelta a Espana and has quietly clambered into fourth place overall. He could wind up protecting Alaphilippe or becoming the team's ace if the French rider folds.
Alaphilippe had a number of prestigious puncher's wins on his résumé, and he had a strong time trial over a similar course in last month's Criterium du Dauphine. Still, even in what was billed as an "open" Tour in the absence of an injured Froome, Alaphilippe was on no one's radar to be part of a conversation this deep in the race.
"Tomorrow is a different song,'' he said. "Completely different from what has come before."
Friday was the 100th anniversary of the first time the iconic leader's garb was presented to a Tour leader -- a bit of marketing to make him stand out amid the utilitarian gray worn by most of the peloton. Spinning forward a century, there is no danger that Alaphilippe will be overlooked as the road goes upwards for real.