Romain Bardet leaned over his handlebars and stared forlornly at the gravel beneath his front wheel. An AG2R La Mondiale soigneur draped a towel around his neck and then took a step backwards, perhaps wary of intruding on his disappointment. Tim Wellens (Lotto Soudal) offered a consolatory pat on the back as he came past, but Bardet was oblivious, buried in his own distress.
The dust had yet to settle atop La Planche des Belles Filles, but the kilometre or so of rough road at the end of stage 6 had already seemed to offer a clear verdict on Bardet's Tour de France chances. The Frenchman lost a little over a minute to defending champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) and now lies 2:08 behind the Welshman in the overall standings. The gradient in the final 300 metres on Thursday grazed 24 per cent; Bardet's path to the yellow jersey in Paris is at this point considerably steeper.
In keeping with recent Tours, the main selection came at the back of the group of favourites rather than off the front. Others to suffer setbacks of varying degrees on La Planche included Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), who lost 51 seconds to Thomas in those vertiginous final metres, and Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma), who conceded over half a minute on the same stretch of road. Alejandro Valverde's status as domestique de luxe at Movistar, meanwhile, was confirmed by his work on the front for Mikel Landa and Nairo Quintana early on the climb, and by his subsequent concession of 1:20 in the finale.
Up ahead, the picture was hardly clear cut. Geraint Thomas' seated surge in the final 350 metres allayed some concerns about his truncated build-up to the race, and the Welshman will be buoyed by being the best of the GC men on the race's first mountain-top finish, coming home fourth, 1:44 down on stage winner Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida).
Thomas also picked up nine seconds on teammate Egan Bernal to move four seconds ahead of the Colombian overall – a timely reminder, perhaps, that he is the senior partner in their co-leadership arrangement. He is now the best placed of the favourites on the GC, lying fifth overall, 49 seconds behind new yellow jersey Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo).
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) confirmed his fine start to the Tour by coming home two seconds behind Thomas, while the bulk of the podium contenders inched across the line a further smattering of seconds back. Most of those who finished within sight of Thomas will have come away feeling relatively content with their afternoon's work.
The group of favourites was still more than 20 riders strong with a kilometre or so to race. They were only shaken apart on the additional kilometre of dirt road and the dizzying gradients tacked on by ASO this year – the so-called 'Super Planche' – and while that gruelling finale was entertaining, it will not be replicated again on this Tour. It seems it would be unwise at this point to draw too many conclusions from the more minor time gaps.
"I lost a bit on the last steep section there, but this is a special climb; it's not like the climbs to come," said Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), who came in 14 seconds behind Thomas. "It's definitely a sign of form, because it's hard to gain form during the Tour. But it's also a different kind of climb to what we're going to get in the Alps and Pyrenees."
With some 4,000 metres of total climbing, Thursday's haul through the Vosges was billed as potentially one of the toughest stages of the entire Tour – although it seems that he dusty sting in the tail contributed to a more cautious opening phase. The early break forged clear with little resistance and there was a relatively minor rate of attrition in the peloton until after they had scaled the Ballon d'Alsace.
"I think the stage was a lot easier than everyone thought it would be," Martin said. "Everyone was scared of this stage because it was so hard at the start, but the first attack stayed away, which made for a much easier day. But obviously an easier stage meant the last two climbs were a lot harder because everyone was fresher."
It was striking that it was Movistar, rather than Team Ineos, who seized the reins at the head of the peloton on those final two climbs of the Col des Chevreres and La Planche des Belles Filles – a statement of intent from Eusebio Unzue's men.
They paved the way for Mikel Landa, who was the only contender to dare to attack before the final dirt section, and the Basque still had the strength to finish just nine seconds down on Thomas after his move was snuffed out. Quintana, meanwhile, came home just ahead of Landa. In the overall standings, they are now 52 and 54 seconds behind Thomas.
"It was the first opportunity to see how we were looking versus our rivals," Unzue said. "The best summary is that there is equality among the favourites."
While Bardet was the most disappointed rider at the top of La Planche, Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) must surely have been the most frustrated. The Frenchman more than held up his end of the bargain by staying with the GC contenders on the first mountains of the race, and then accelerated clear of them on the gravel in the final kilometre. Only Thomas and Pinot kept pace with Alaphilippe, catching him in the last 50 metres.
Ordinarily, that performance would have sufficed to keep Alaphilippe in the maillot jaune, but the day's early break was allowed to hold a lead of eight minutes far too deep into the stage. Although their buffer was tumbling on the last haul up La Planche, it couldn't fall quite quickly enough for Alaphilippe. He lost his jersey to Ciccone by a mere six seconds; the time bonus for second place proved an invaluable consolation prize for the Italian.
"I'm not disappointed, I've enjoyed it: the last three days have been exceptional," Alaphilippe said.
So exceptional, in fact, that he might be minded to win the jersey back in the Massif Central this weekend. Neither Saturday's stage to Saint-Étienne nor Sunday's to Brioude appear demanding enough to excite the GC contenders, but they both feature time bonuses on climbs in the finale. If his effervescence continues, Alaphilippe may yet carry the yellow jersey into the Pyrenees.
"I feel better than I thought [I would]," he said. "We'll see in the coming days."
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