The mind games have begun. There are five riders within 39 seconds of each other at the top of the Tour de France standings, but before they can think about racing each other they need to make sure Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep), the current leader, is out of the way.
Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) established himself as the strongest climber in the Pyrenees last weekend but sought to shift responsibility onto the Team Ineos duo of Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal ahead of the three Alpine stages that will decide the race.
Pinot’s stage win on the Col du Tourmalet and second place at Prat d’Albis saw him climb the standings after losing time in the crosswinds at the start of last week, and many now see him as the favourite in what is a mountainous finale. However, he is still fourth overall, 1:50 down on Alaphilippe. Thomas is second at 1:35, Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) third at 1:47, and Bernal fifth at 2:02.
"I think it’s more up to Ineos to attack at the moment, without a doubt," Pinot told reporters in Gap on Wednesday. "It’s them who are the best-placed for the time being, and they still have to put time into Alaphilippe."
The Alps begin on Thursday, with stage 18 taking the riders over the Col de Vars, Col d'Izoard, and Col du Galibier before the descent to Valloire. On Friday, it's the Madeleine and the Iseran ahead of the summit finish at Tignes. On Saturday, it's the Cormet de Roselend and the interminable ascent to Val Thorens.
Pinot believes the final two stages, which are both around 130km, are more open to aggressive racing than Thursday’s 208km journey over the Galibier. However, he insisted that, despite the demanding nature of the parcours, the racing won’t be left until the last minute.
"We’re not going to wait until Val Thorens," Pinot warned. "Tomorrow is a big, long stage, so it’s going to hurt at the end. So there will be a battle tomorrow, that’s for sure. If people have the legs, they’ll go on the attack tomorrow.
"I think there’ll be more movement on the last two stages, where everyone will lay it on the line," he said. "There are guys like Landa who are quite far off the podium who are capable of going from very far out. Thursday will come down to the final climb, but the other days we should see attacks earlier on."
As for his own chances, Pinot has often struggled with consistency in the sharp end of Grand Tours, but if he can replicate his Pyrenean form with no wobbles the race is surely his.
"You never know quite how you are in the final days. You don’t know how well people have recovered, and the heat we’ve had will add to the fatigue," he said. "But I’m keeping in mind what I did last weekend."