Twenty-four hours after showing weakness on the Tourmalet, defending champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) fought back to provide a timely reminder that despite not having the form of twelve months ago he is still a contender for this year's Tour de France.
Thomas couldn't follow the very best but still managed to attack with just under two kilometers to go on stage 15. He put 27 seconds into race leader Julian Alaphilippe, who showed the first signs of weakness after two weeks of racing, but both Thibaut Pinot and Thomas's teammate Egan Bernal both put time into the Welshman for the second day in a row. Thomas leaves the Pyrenees in second place overall, 1:35 down on yellow, but with Pinot and Bernal both closing. Both riders pose very different but pertinent questions at this point in the race.
Although Pinot is the strongest rider in the race, on present form Team Ineos will be confident that they can turn the tables in the Alps. However, how Thomas deals with Bernal is a far more delicate proposition. He cannot climb with his Colombian teammate, and with no more time trial kilometers between here and Paris the 27-second gap between the two could easily be washed away once the race begins to climb again.
For now, at least, those are questions are for another day and the stage finish at Foix-Prat d'Albis demonstrated that Thomas' difficulties on the Tourmalet had slightly subsided.
"I felt better than yesterday but I needed to just try and pace it when it all kicked off. Wout Poels was really good so I just stayed with him," Thomas said at the line.
When Pinot attacked with 6km to go, only Bernal, Alphilippe, and Emanuel Buchmann could follow. But the Groupama-FDJ rider was on a mission and before the finish, he had dropped his companions one-by-one and picked up Mikel Landa (Movistar) for good measure. The Frenchman took second on the line behind breakaway winner Simon Yates and after two weeks of racing, Pinot looks like France's best hope of winning the race.
Thomas wasn't able to follow Pinot's surge but the Team Ineos captain rode his tempo. His pace was enough to catch and then work over Alaphilippe before making an attack as the road began to level. Bernal's ability to follow Pinot for the longest creates a difficult issue for Thomas, and at the line, he spoke about the regret of not attacking earlier.
"It was kind of a shame because I got stuck behind Alaphilippe and we didn't want to pull with him in the wheel so we let him ride a bit then jumped with maybe two kilometres to go. It's a difficult one, tactics-wise, because I had the legs to go and I wanted to go but obviously I wasn't going to chase down Egan with the guys on my wheel. It was a decent day," Thomas said.
"Like I say I was stuck between a rock and a hard place really. I just had to wait for a few kilometers and that gave Pinot time but at least the legs are responding a bit better. It was a solid start but it's a mental game now because everyone is good. Everyone is tired and you just need to block that out. It's just easy to think about last year and all the good times and how I should be floating but I was suffering at times then as well. I just need to bite the bullet and dig in.
"I knew the legs were good. I wanted to go a bit earlier and maybe I should have but I knew that it levelled out. I knew that I could get the power out and just drive it to the line."
Heading into the second rest day Thomas has plenty to ponder, both in the internal and external. This Tour – perhaps the most dramatic and close in almost a decade - winds on.
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