The summit finish at La Planche des Belle Filles continued to be a happy hunting ground for Team Ineos on stage 6 of the Tour de France. While the team may not have won or taken the race lead on the Vosges mountain, as both Chris Froome and Bradley Wiggins have done in the past, they still walked away with a positive outcome – especially for 'co-leader' Geraint Thomas.
On the 'Super Planche', the regular summit enhanced by the addition of 900 metres of steep gravel road, it was the reigning champion who stamped his authority on the GC battle, surging from the lead group in the closing metres to take time on all of his rivals for the yellow jersey – including teammate Egan Bernal.
"Surprised? It's a good surprise, I would say," directeur sportif Nicolas Portal said after the finish. "I was hoping for that; all of us could see that Geraint was doing well from the start of the Tour.
"In the team time trial, he was super, super strong. And yesterday I saw on the last climb when it was really fast that he was OK when all of the GC guys were suffering."
Pre-race expectations were that Bernal would be the Team Ineos leader more suited to the steep slopes of the La Planche's final kilometres, but it was instead Thomas who powered away on the tarmac section before the final corner.
He would finish fourth on the stage, 1:44 down on stage winner Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida), but led the GC group home, and took back nine seconds on Bernal, who had gained five seconds on stage 3 in Épernay. The move was indicative of his overall form going forward, said Portal.
"He was holding, holding and went," Portal added. "That just showed that today he was the strongest. It's just stage 6, but that gives us a lot of hope."
Further down the mountain at the at the Team Ineos bus, team principal Dave Brailsford echoed his directeur sportif's sentiments.
"Geraint had the experience to wait a little bit and know when to go," Brailsford said. "I think that demonstrates why he won last year, and that'll give him a lot of confidence, that's for sure."
After six days of the race, Thomas has excelled in both major tests put to him so far, leading a successful TTT on day two and now showing his strength in the mountains. Four days for the sprinters and breakaway artists follow, before the next GC touchstone, the Pau time trial on stage 13.
"It won't be too long until we have the time trial." Brailsford said. "We'll see how we get on there, but I think there'll be a lot of confidence going into that. It's a nice position [to be] on GC."
Team Ineos benefitted on the stage from not having to control the race for much of the day, with Movistar instead doing the bulk of the work on the run-in to the final climbs. The British squad relinquishing control was a rare sight on a GC-focussed stage at the Tour, though they did, inevitably, move to the front on the climb to the finish.
"We didn't have to do too much because Deceunick-QuickStep worked most of the day and then Movistar came up," said Portal. "I think we can be really happy with how it went today for the team and our two leaders.
"It's still stage 6, but it's good to put some time to a strong rider like Bardet [who lost 1:09 to Thomas]. It's not a typical mountain stage – we have to keep our feet on the ground and just be happy. That's for sure going to boost everyone, the full team plus Egan and Geraint."
It was a different strategy from Team Ineos on La Planche des Belles Filles then, but in the end, it led to the same outcome. From the uncertainty of the first week of the Tour, Thomas has risen as the strongest rider, so far, at least. Once again, they're in the driving seat and the rest of the peloton has a familiar problem to solve.
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