Simon Yates soloed to his second Tour de France victory of the week on stage 15 to the Prat d’Albis as Julian Alaphilippe finally cracked and the fight for yellow came alive behind.
Mitchelton-Scott’s Yates attacked with 8.7km left of the steep climb above Foix to follow up his victory on Thursday’s stage 12 to Bagneres-de-Bigorre.
Behind, Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot attacked the reduced group of favourites and distanced Geraint Thomas, though the Welshman put in a late dig of his own to ensure he remained above the Frenchman in the general classification.
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Geraint Thomas admitted he felt “weak” after the unforgiving slopes of the Tourmalet dealt a blow to his Tour de France hopes.
The defending champion was the last and most surprising contender to lose contact with the front group on the highest paved pass in the Pyrenees, falling away one kilometre from the finish of this 117.5km stage 14 before Thibaut Pinot took victory and Julian Alaphilippe finished second to extend his lead in yellow.
Everybody was waiting to see whether Alaphilippe would wilt in the high altitude. Instead, Team Ineos owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe watched from the team car as the Welshman cracked instead, losing 36 seconds on the road and more in bonuses.
“Not the best day,” Thomas said. “I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start. I was quite weak. At the end I knew I just had to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked.
“I just thought I should ride my own pace rather than follow them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end. It’s disappointing. I just tried to limit the damage.”
Asked if he was unwell, the Team Ineos rider said: “We will see in the next few days. From the start I just didn’t feel great. There’s still a lot to come.”
French fans were in raptures as Pinot rode away to take his third career stage win and Alaphilippe crossed the line six seconds later in second to extend his lead over Thomas to two minutes two seconds.
Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Alaphilippe had already defied predictions to pull out time on Thomas in Friday’s time trial, but this was an even bigger surprise.
“I knew that a yellow jersey can change you,” Astana boss Alexandre Vinokourov said after Friday’s stage, “but I didn’t know it could make you fly.”
Whether or not the 27-year-old, who has never finished in the top 30 of a Grand Tour before, can actually keep it up remains to be seen, but either way Thomas’ other rivals for yellow will have been encouraged by what they saw here.
Steven Kruijsiwjk’s Jumbo-Visma team looked strong as he rode to third on the stage and now third overall, cutting his deficit to Thomas to just 12 seconds.
Bora-Hansgrohe’s Emanuel Buchmann and Groupama-FDJ’s Pinot are now 70 seconds behind the Team Ineos man in fifth and sixth respectively.
A stunned Geraint Thomas called Julian Alaphilippe the favourite to win the Tour de France after the Frenchman’s time trial victory in Pau saw him extend his lead in yellow.
Alaphilippe produced the time trial of his life to complete the lumpy 27km course in 35 minutes flat, 14 seconds faster than second-placed Thomas who now trails the Deceuninck-Quick Step man by 86 seconds overall.
There remains an expectation that Alaphilippe, who did not start the Tour targeting the general classification, will soon fall away, but after he survived Thursday’s first Pyrenean stage and then pulled out time on a world-class time triallist such as Thomas, the question is when.
“I didn’t really expect that,” Thomas said. “He’s obviously going incredibly well, so he’s certainly the favourite and the one to watch at the minute.”
Ineos team principal Sir Dave Brailsford has been happy to dismiss Alaphilippe’s overall chances, but Thomas is beginning to take him seriously.
Asked if he was a threat, Thomas said: “For sure, the way he’s riding. If he can keep that up then he’ll win.
“There’s a long way to go, there’s a lot of hard stages to come now.”
Alaphilippe sounded just as surprised as Thomas by the result.
“It’s incredible,” he said. I’m really happy. Without being pretentious, I knew I could do a good performance on such a course, I told my cousin Franck this morning that I’d do something good but I didn’t think I could win the stage, especially with such a big gap against Geraint Thomas.
“The first part suited me but I surprised myself in the second part of the race. I pushed my limits.
“With the help of the public, I gave everything til the line. I heard that even in my team car they all cried.”
Thomas’ failure to pick up time was not the only disappointment for Team Ineos as Egan Bernal could only manage 22nd on the stage, 96 seconds down on Alaphilippe, and so slipped from third to fifth on the general classification.
The Colombian also conceded the young rider’s white jersey to Alaphilippe’s team-mate Enric Mas.
Less of a surprise was seeing the time trial cause a shake up at the top of the standings, with Mitchelton-Scott’s Adam Yates and UAE Team Emirates’ Dan Martin among the losers.
Martin finished 33rd on the day, two minutes six seconds down on Alaphilippe, with Yates one place and two seconds further back.
That sees Yates drop from seventh to 10th, three minutes and 55 seconds down, with Martin in 11th a further 20 seconds back.
French hope Thibaut Pinot – caught out in the crosswinds on stage 10 – performed well and moved himself up to seventh, albeit still three minutes 22 seconds off yellow.
Jumbo-Visma’s Wout Van Aert had started the stage as one of the favourites for victory but his hopes – and his Tour – were ended in a nasty crash inside the final two kilometres.
The young Belgian clipped the inside of a fast right-hand bend and needed lengthy medical treatment at the roadside before being taken to hospital with what his team said was a flesh wound to his right leg.