Tour de France – Geraint Thomas backs legs to respond as race hots up

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.

Great Britain's Simon Yates leads the race as as smoke from fans billows during the 15th stage of the Tour de France. Picture: Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Getty Images)

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 today’s rest day meant they must wait for the next instalment.

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In lieu of a race, today 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.

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN: Simon Yates celebrates as he crosses the finish line to win the 15th stage of the Tour de France with start in Limoux and finish on Sunday. Picture: AP/Christophe Ena)

“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 tomorrow.

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’s 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.”

Yates had no such quandaries as he followed up Thursday’s victory on stage 12 to Bagneres-de-Bigorre with a superb solo effort.

The Mitchelton-Scott rider, free to go stage hunting after his brother Adam saw his general classification hopes ended on the Tourmalet, was active in the breakaway before making his final decisive move with a little under nine kilometres of the final climb above Foix remaining.

“It was little bit different to the first stage win,” the 26-year-old Lancastrian said. “We really raced from the beginning to the final. It was very tough and I’m proud of what I did there.”

Given Adam’s struggles and Simon’s form off the back of his eighth place in the Giro d’Italia, some will ask why their roles were not reversed here, but Simon suggested his stage victories were a product of not being the team leader.

“I’m racing with a different mentality,” he said. “I’ve not come here with any ambition for GC whatsoever. I’m very relaxed and going about it how I want.”

That had been Alaphilippe’s approach throughout the first week, one which has rewarded him richly, but one he admitted he can no longer maintain as he is forced to ride conservatively.

“I’m not used to defending the lead,” he said.

“I’m learning from my mistakes but I don’t think of today as a mistake... for me, I’m still here, the dream goes on.”

But the Frenchman, visibly weary as he slumped over a table, sounded like a man who knows his time in the spotlight is nearing an end.

“I didn’t have the ambition to win the Tour,” he added. “Today nothing changes for me.

“On the other hand it changes things for Thibaut after what he did yesterday. The third week suits him really, and if I lose the yellow jersey I would like that Thibaut would be the next one to take it.”

The French public would agree.