Geraint Thomas delivered a major statement of intent in the defence of his Tour de France crown as he pulled clear of young team-mate Egan Bernal on the final brutal slopes of La Planche des Belles Filles.
As Dylan Teuns won Stage 6 from the breakaway and young Italian Giulio Ciccone snatched the yellow jersey off the shoulders of Julian Alaphilippe, it was the sight of Thomas defying his own predictions and bursting clear of the main contenders at the last which caught the eye.
Much had been made of the five seconds Bernal picked up due to a momentary lapse from Thomas in the finale of Stage 3 in Epernay, and that gap was only expected to grow here as gradients hit 24 per cent and the surface turned to gravel.
Thomas spent Wednesday explaining why the stage did not suit him and pointing to Bernal as one of the favourites to profit, but the wily Welshman perhaps knew more than he was letting on.
“I was feeling good but I was unsure,” Thomas said. “I thought the steep climbs weren’t my cup of tea. I was expecting others – (Nairo) Quintana, Egan, (Adam) Yates – would jump up there. It was a decent day in the end.
“It is one of those climbs where you have to patient. When Alaphilippe went clear at 800 (metres to go), quite early, I had the confidence to let him go and ride my own temp and drive it all the way to the line from 350. I was starting to blow through. It is decent.”
Bahrain-Merida’s Teuns and Trek-Segafredo’s Ciccone were the last survivors of a 14-man breakaway on the 160.5km stage from Mulhouse, and both received rich rewards at the top of a climb which left many riders struggling to stand at the summit.
Teuns could celebrate a first career Tour victory while the 24-year-old Ciccone – a star of the Giro d’Italia in May as he took a stage win and the mountains classification – did just enough to take the yellow jersey by six seconds.
Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Alaphilippe did not give it up without a fight. Having stuck with the group of favourites all day, he attacked as the road turned to dust near the summit.
At first no-one reacted, but Thomas then found the reserves he needed to spring past the Frenchman, who slumped on to the barriers as soon as he crossed the line.
.@dylan_teuns wins the stage at la Planche des Belles Filles with a huge effort at the end! 🌟— Tour de France™ (@LeTour) 11 July 2019
Dylan Teuns s’impose au bout de l’effort à la Planche des Belles Filles ! 🌟#TDF2019 pic.twitter.com/pjhOJMn4Wl
The seconds Thomas has gained may not be massive – two on Thibaut Pinot, seven on Quintana and nine on a group including Jakob Fuglsang, Richie Porte and of course Bernal – but given the question marks over his form this was a clear answer.
Mitchelton-Scott’s Adam Yates and UAE Team Emirates’ Dan Martin lost the wheels at the last, finishing 14 seconds behind Thomas.
Porte’s team-mate Ciccone now leads by six seconds from Alaphilippe, with Teuns up to third, 32 seconds down. Jumbo-Visma’s George Bennett slots into fourth, two seconds ahead of Thomas who is 49 seconds off yellow.
In the Tour’s three previous visits to this mountain the man in yellow at the end of the day has worn it in Paris at the end of the race, but Thomas’ late dig suggests this edition has many more twists to come.
As Elia Viviani claimed his first career Tour de France stage win by a wheel length in Nancy, the debate continued as to the size and significance of the margin that separated Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal 24 hours earlier.
Viviani edged out Alexander Kristoff and Caleb Ewan in the first pure sprint of this year’s Tour, giving the Italian the Tour victory he craved to go with his five career Giro d’Italia stages and three in La Vuelta.
The sprint finish meant there was no change in the general classification, which Viviani’s Deceuninck-Quick Step team-mate Julian Alaphilippe leads after his superb solo attack into Epernay on Monday.
As Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford was happy to tell anyone, Alaphilippe has “not a chance” of keeping yellow through the mountains, so it is the gaps further down that matter, and the one that has caught the eye is the five-second cushion that separates Bernal in sixth from Thomas in seventh.
That was the product of a slight gap between the pair as they crossed the line in Epernay, enough for them to be deemed in different groups on the road.
The time gap may be small, the actual margin on the road smaller, but as the two men vie for leadership of Team Ineos, the defending champion could have done without conceding it.
“It is what it is,” Thomas said. “No-one wins the Tour on five-second sprint finishes but obviously it would be better not to have lost that.
“I was hoping just to slowly drift back a bit and the next thing I know no-one is coming past me and I was like ‘I have to try and close this gap’ but it was a bit late by then.
“Obviously five seconds – it is nice not to lose that. If I am off the podium by four I might be more disappointed.”
Regardless of what the time sheets said, Brailsford seemed ready to deny the gap existed at all.
“It wasn’t a five-second gap though, was it?” he said. “I think way too much has been made of it, if I am honest. If anyone understands the sport, you watch the sport, there is a 30-metre gap. ‘G’ sat up a little bit, he thought people were trying to come over him and that is it.
“People are trying to make out that it is a five-second gap and it is not….It makes no difference.”
The difference on the day was made by Viviani, who had the speed and strength to hold off the hard-charging Kristoff and Ewan.
It was sweet reward for the 30-year-old, who had been frustrated to leave the Giro empty-handed in May, and found the finishing incline of Saturday’s opening stage of the Tour in Brussels too difficult.
“It means a lot,” said Viviani. “Probably I can’t believe it still. It was a big goal of the year. We missed the first chance and put the yellow on.
“But I think after Julian’s phenomenal ride yesterday, it’s a moment when you switch on the team. Today we did a perfect job, you saw how the lead-out did.
“I’m pretty happy. I was missing this win. I won in the Giro and the Vuelta and now in the Tour de France, that means a lot to me.”
The rest of the peloton were simply happy to make it through a sketchy final five kilometres of the 213.5km run from Reims unscathed, with the route designers sending them barrelling down a wide dual carriageway before a roundabout funnelled them into a tight left-hander two kilometres from the line.
“That’s the problem with these 200km days,” said Team Ineos road captain Luke Rowe. “They kind of tend to be a lot of rolling around but then a hectic final.
“It’s another day ticked off where we’re all still on our bikes and we’ve still got our skin.”
The switch from Team Sky to Team Ineos did nothing to change their luck in Tour de France team time trials but another podium finish without victory saw Geraint Thomas and Egan Bernal pick up significant chunks of time on their rivals.
Ineos were first off the ramp for Sunday’s 27.6km run around Brussels and sat in the hot seat for almost two hours before watching the final team to start, Jumbo-Visma, beat their time of 29 minutes 18 seconds by 20 seconds to keep Saturday’s shock stage winner Mike Teunissen in the yellow jersey.
It was the fifth time that the team known as Team Sky until Sir Jim Radcliffe’s buyout in May have finished in the top three of a team time trial at the Tour, but victory continues to elude them.
But while Gianni Moscon – a rider who was almost sacked by then Team Sky 12 months ago when he was disqualified from the Tour for punching Elie Gesbert on stage 15 – was denied the yellow jersey, Thomas and Bernal will welcome the sight of some significant time gaps.
Teunissen’s team-mate Steven Kruijswijk is now the best placed of the general classification hopefuls, 20 seconds clear of Ineos’ co-leaders, but there is better news further down the standings.
Thomas and Bernal picked up 12 seconds on Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot, 16 seconds on Bahrain-Merida’s Vincenzo Nibali and 21 seconds on both Adam Yates of Mitchelton-Scott and Jakob Fuglsang of Astana, who looked untroubled by the knee injury he suffered in a late spill on Saturday.
But others suffered more. Dan Martin’s UAE Team Emirates, not noted time triallists, were relatively happy to have only conceded 43 seconds but Nairo Quintana’s Movistar gave up 45, Richie Porte’s Trek-Segafredo 58 and Romain Bardet’s AG2R La Mondiale 59 seconds.
Jumbo-Visma averaged 57.2kmh over the course, beating Ineos’ 56.5kmh.
“We wanted to go 57,” Thomas said. “I think it’s alright and we rode very well and communicated well.
“I think everyone rode strongly so we can’t be too disappointed. We got a good speed and we managed to hold onto it. We could have taken some curves faster but that was a minimal loss.”
Thomas was involved in a late crash of his own on Saturday, an incident which had held up Team Ineos to the point they were last on the team classification at the end of stage one, forcing them to start this stage first and ride without a benchmark to follow.
“Starting early wasn’t planned,” Thomas added. “It was my tumble and Egan was just behind me so we knew we’d have to start early.
“I had no issues today (after the crash).”
Saturday’s surprise winner Teunissen then not only keeps his overnight lead, but moves further clear of his rivals from other teams.
“I barely slept last night,” the leader admitted.
“But here we are again, I hope I get more sleep and I think I can keep hold of the jersey again tomorrow,” said Teunissen.
“Today all eight of our riders win,” said Teunissen, who described having the yellow jersey as ‘life changing’.
In even more good news for Jumbo break out star Wout Van Aert took the best young rider’s white jersey as he continued to impress since his conversion from cyclocross.
“It’s good for me, good for Belgium and just great for Mike, who is much better than people have been giving him credit for,” said Van Aert.
Denmark’s Fuglsang, who was left battered and bleeding from the head after a high-speed fall on Saturday, looked strained as his Astana team lost 20 seconds to his Tour de France title rivals Thomas and the Colombian Bernal.
Belgian outfit Deceuninck Quick-Step came third a single second behind Ineos.
Another rider who will go back to the team hotel happy is French climber Thibaut Pinot, as his FDJ outfit stunned everyone except themselves by dropping just 12 seconds to Ineos.
“That was exactly what we wanted, we worked really well (together). No-one thought we could do it, but we knew,” said the glowing Frenchman.
The other notable French climber Bardet had a poor day however down in 19th.
Of the 2019 contenders Colombian Quintana’s Movistar were 45sec off Ineos’ pace while Italian Nibali lost just 16sec on Thomas.
Irishman Martin saw his UAE Team Emirates outfit lose 41 seconds to Ineos but he was hugely upbeat about limiting losses.
“It seemed quite easy so thanks to the whole team. I’m feeling good after what we had expected to be a tough day,” said habitual top 10 finisher Martin.
Those looking for signs this will be an open and competitive Tour de France will see the minimal time differences between the main contenders as an indication of how tight it is.
The times for the team time-trial are taken from the fourth man crossing the line, while dropped riders take their own time, as with Vuelta a Espana champion Simon Yates, who was left behind with 10km to race.