Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) warned that Thursday's finish at La Planche des Belles Filles will be a moment of "100 per cent racing" at this year's Tour de France, with the first mountain stage in the Vosges set to finally reveal the form of the overall contenders and perhaps create significant time gaps.
Thomas lost five seconds to teammate Egan Bernal and French rival Thibaut Pinot on the uphill finish to Epernay on Monday and Team Inoes is hoping it was just a brief moment of distraction rather than an indication of the Welshman's form after his Tour de Suisse crash.
Thomas and Bernal started the Tour de France on equal footing and the 8.7 per cent climb to La Planche des Belle Filles is likely to show who is the stronger, with Bernal free to follow any attacks and ride his own race, even if Thomas struggles and loses time.
Thomas warmed down carefully after finishing stage 5 to Colmar, aware that the first judgment day of the 2019 Tour de France is only hours away.
"It's going to be 100 per cent racing. It's not quite as hard as say the Tourmalet or the other mountain top finishes but it's more than an appetizer, it's a real start," he said.
The Tour de France has finished at La Planche des Belles Filles on three previous occasions. In 2012, Chris Froome's victory set the tone for Team Sky's dominance of the race. Two years later, Vincenzo Nibali placed a hefty down payment on overall victory by claiming the summit.
In 2017 Fabio Aru won alone as Froome took the yellow jersey from Thomas, who lost 40 seconds in the steep finale. A few days later he crashed out of the race, fracturing his collarbone.
This time around, the 160.5km stage climb itself features an additional, steep kilometre, with a final kick-up to the line at an eye-watering 24 per cent. The day includes six other classified ascents crammed into the preceding 150km.
"It's hard," Thomas said of the final climb to La Planche des Belles Filles.
"I looked at just before the Tour de Suisse and I've raced it before and that time I saw the extra kilometre at the top. The new part is like the rest of the climb: it kicks up again and last 250 metres are really steep. The extra last kilometre will make it tougher.
"I raced up it a couple of years ago and I lost the yellow jersey, so that's not the best memory," Thomas added, his dead-pan humour still flowing despite in the impending show-down and moment of truth.
"I think that kind of climb favours the punchy, pure climbers like Egan, for one. But then guys like [Adam] Yates, Richie Porte and [Nairo] Quintana. When you've got good form, you've got good form. It'll be interesting to see where everyone is."
Limiting any losses
Thomas hinted he would try to limit any time loss to the pure climbers to stay in the fight for the Tour de France. He hopes to come good in time for the decisive mountain stages in the final week.
"I'll try and ride the best I can and we'll see what happens when we get to the top," he said.
"I think it's a climb you have to be patient on. You can feel good at bottom but on the 20 per cent gradient you go back pretty quickly, so it's about being patience.
"We'll know a lot more tomorrow (Thursday). You can't tell a lot from the last few days of racing. [Julian] Alaphilippe is flying, even if the climbs are different. I think he's shown the form to hang in and keep the jersey. It'll be interesting; there are a lot of climbs before the last one to the finish. It'll be a challenge."
Bernal poised and on form for first showdown
Thomas is curious about how his overall rivals will perform and what La Planche des Belles Filles says of their form. Everyone else will be watching the 2018 winner and comparing to teammate Bernal to understand who will emerge as the Team Ineos team leader and so who has the best shot at winning the Tour de France.
Bernal has looked poised and on form so far but is carefully playing down expectations. He and Thomas rarely come into contact but there is no sign of an internal rivalry.
"I'm sharing the team leadership with Geraint so if I do a good Tour, then that's good but if not I'm just 22 and it's my second Grand Tour. I just want to enjoy it," Bernal said.
"Tomorrow is going to be a really hard stage but we have to be up there because the overall contenders won't want to lose time and neither do it," Bernal told the Spanish media after spending another quiet day, hidden in the peloton. "It's the first real mountain stage, so we'll find out where we really are after five intense days of racing. I hope to be up there and feel good but whoever wins tomorrow won't automatically go on to win the Tour. This is just the start."
Thomas was wary of revealing how he and Bernal will ride on Thursday.
"We'll have a chat and decide how to race it but what we decide I'm not going to tell you," he joked, keeping his card and any doubts close to his chest.
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