By Julien Pretot
PAU, France (Reuters) – Defending champion Geraint Thomas labeled Julian Alaphilippe the Tour de France favorite after the Frenchman extended his overall lead with a stunning victory in Friday’s individual time trial.
World number one Alaphilippe beat Thomas by 14 seconds in the 27.2km ride to stretch his advantage over the Team Ineos leader to one minute 26 seconds.
Thomas remains on course to add to his 2018 title because Alaphilippe has never performed in the high mountains on a grand tour, but the Briton was clearly shaken by the Frenchman’s performance.
“I didn’t really expect that. He’s obviously going incredibly well, so he’s certainly the favorite and the one to watch at the minute,” said Thomas, who will still feel his team have the race under control with the hardest part to come.
Asked if Alaphilippe, who says he is taking the Tour day by day and doesn’t give himself much chance of hanging on in the mountains, was a threat, Thomas said: “For sure, the way he’s riding. If he can keep that up then he’ll win.”
Thomas admitted he did not have his best legs on the lumpy ride around Pau even if he gained time on the rest of the field,.
“It wasn’t too bad it just felt like I was just overheating a bit so I was trying to deal with that. It’s not an excuse it’s the same for everyone,” the Briton said.
“It was okay – just in that last bit I didn’t really feel it. It was controlled, but in the last 8km or so I felt like when I really wanted to step on it I didn’t quite have that last five percent.
“It’s still a decent ride but you always pick it apart a bit.”
The race is expected to heat up on Saturday when the 14th stage takes the peloton from Tarbes to the top of the Col du Tourmalet, a punishing 19km ascent at an average gradient of 7.4% ending 2,115 meters above sea level.
“He’s (Alaphilippe) certainly the favorite and the one to watch at the minute. There’s a long way to go and a lot of hard stages to come now,” Thomas said.
Saturday’s stage will be followed by a mountain-top finish at Prat d’Albis on Sunday before a grueling week in the Alps with several passes well above 2,000 meters in altitude.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ed Osmond)