Simon Yates soloed to his second Tour de France victory of the week oblivious to the fireworks behind him as the battle for the yellow jersey exploded on the ramps up to the Prat d’Albis on stage 15.
Thibaut Pinot darted forward for the second day in a row as the first cracks appeared in Julian Alaphilippe’s challenge, while Geraint Thomas again watched his rivals race up the road in front of him.
The only disappointment for fans at the end of 185 kilometres of entertainment was that Monday’s rest day meant they must wait for the next instalment.
In lieu of a race, Monday will instead be a chance to dissect a general classification in which only 39 seconds separate Thomas in second from Emanuel Buchmann in sixth, and in which Alaphilippe seems to accept he may no longer be a factor despite sitting 95 seconds ahead of Thomas.
“It’s not a surprise that I’m starting to struggle,” said the Deceuninck-Quick Step rider, who did not target the Tour this year but will enjoy an 11th day in yellow when the race resumes in Nimes on Tuesday.
If Alaphilippe is fading, Pinot looks the man in form of all the contenders.
Twenty-four hours after his victory on the mighty Tourmalet, the Groupama-FDJ man was able to distance his rivals in the final kilometres and establish himself as the man most likely to end a 34-year wait for a home winner of the Tour.
His first kick with seven kilometres to go put Thomas in trouble. Alaphilippe tried to follow but quickly discovered he could not, while Pinot’s second dig four and half kilometres from the top left Buchmann and Thomas’ Ineos team-mate Egan Bernal behind.
By the line, Pinot had taken 55 seconds out of Thomas to sit only 15 behind. How he must rue the 100 seconds lost to crosswinds on stage 10.Thomas insisted he was feeling much better than he had when he was distanced a day earlier on the Tourmalet, and interestingly seemed to blame the co-leadership at Ineos for putting him in trouble.
“It’s a difficult one, tactics wise – I wanted to go, I had the legs to go but I wasn’t going to chase down Egan Bernal with Alaphilippe on my wheel,” said the Welshman, who gave up 31 seconds to his team-mate.
“I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place, I had to wait a few kilometres and that gave Thibaut Pinot time but at least the legs are responding really well.”
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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.