Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) was dubbed the 'Patron of the Pyrenees' after his performances last weekend at the Tour de France, but his dominance did not continue into the Alps, with the Frenchman admitting he was "not on a great day" during Thursday's stage 18.
Pinot was victorious atop the Col du Tourmalet last Saturday and backed it up the following day by putting more time into his rivals at Prat d'Albis. The gains he made effectively cancelled out the losses he'd suffered in the crosswinds at the start of the week, and suddenly he was right back in the thick of the battle for the overall title.
The sense of ascendancy, however, was curbed as the Tour hit the Alps for a trio of high-mountain, high-altitude stages that will decide the race before the procession into Paris. Pinot did not follow when Egan Bernal (Team Ineos) attacked from the yellow jersey group on the Col du Galibier, and the Colombian went on to gain 32 seconds, leapfrogging him on his way to second overall.
However, when Bernal's teammate Geraint Thomas, previously second overall, attacked soon after, Pinot did set about nullifying the 2018 champion. Race leader Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) was dropped as a result but clawed his way back on the descent, leaving Pinot still 1:50 adrift of the maillot jaune.
"It's an average assessment. I was not on a great day. Those days, you just have to get through them, and that's what I did," Pinot told reporters in Valloire.
"The objective was to follow the top guys. I didn't succeed in following Egan Bernal, who was very strong today. Thomas also made a big attack, but I was able to close that down before the summit."
Pinot had predicted that Thursday's stage, at 208km and with three major climbs, was perhaps less amenable to offensive racing than Friday and Saturday's shorter, more explosive affairs. Stage 19 takes the race over its highest point, the Col de l’Iseran (2,770m) before a summit finish at Tignes, while Saturday features the interminable ascent to the finish at Val Thorens.
"Now it's time for two summit finishes, where more things should happen and where I hope, above all, to have better sensations," Pinot said.
Movistar were very strong today, and they now have two cards to play with Quintana and Landa. Between Ineos and Movistar, there's plenty of opportunity for movement and an open race – and so much the better.
Back at the Groupama-FDJ bus, team manager Marc Madiot insisted that, despite Bernal's advances, it was "status quo" as far as the overall contest was concerned.
Alaphilippe still leads by a handsome margin, ahead of a tightly packed top six. Bernal is second at 1:30, Thomas third at 1:35, Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) fourth at 1:47, Pinot fifth at 1:50, and Emmanuel Buchmann (Bora-Hansgrohe) sixth at 2:14.
"If you look at the difference between second and fifth, there are 20 seconds," Madiot said. "Alaphilippe is still ahead. So, there are two things. One: will Alaphillippe crack or not? And two: if he does, then there’s only 20 seconds between the rest of them. So it’s the last two days that will really decide this."
After exploding with emotion at Pinot’s Pyrenean flourishes, Madiot seemed happy to see his man simply got through the first Apline outing unscathed, with the coming stages providing better opportunities.
"Thibaut couldn’t go when Bernal attacked, but Thomas was able to bring back. It wasn’t really his kind of day with a descent to the finish. It's a day with no consequences," Madiot said.
"The two short, nervous stages coming up will suit him better. Tomorrow and the day after tomorrow are very interesting. Voila, the show goes on. Place your bets. Everybody's at full tilt now."
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Alasdair Fotheringham has been reporting on cycling since 1991. He has covered every Tour de France since 1992 bar one, as well as numerous other bike races of all shapes and sizes, ranging from the Olympic Games in 2008 to the now sadly defunct Subida a Urkiola hill climb in Spain. As well as working for Cyclingnews, he has also written for The Independent, The Guardian, ProCycling, The Express and Reuters.