By Julien Pretot
EPERNAY, France (Reuters) – France’s Julian Alaphilippe lived up to the hype as he snatched the Tour de France overall leader’s yellow jersey by winning the third stage on Monday.
The world number one jumped away from the pack in the Cote de Mutigny, a brutal 900-metre effort at an average gradient of 12.2%, to claim his third stage win in the race after a 215 kilometres ride from Binche, Belgium.
Deceuninck-Quick Step rider Alaphilippe, one of the pre-stage favourites, hung on for dear life over the remaining 16 kilometres to take the overall lead from Dutchman Mike Teunissen, who dropped out when the Frenchman attacked.
“It’s sinking in slowly,” an emotional Alaphilippe, who won the polka dot jersey for the mountains classification last year, told reporters.
“I knew the finale (uphill finish) suited me but I didn’t think I would be on my own so far from the line. It’s always hard to deliver when you’re the favourite.”
Alaphilippe has had a fantastic season, winning the Milan-San Remo ‘Monument’ classic and the Strade Bianche in March, as well as the Fleche Wallonne in April.
Wearing a yellow jersey makes his year perfect.
“It was crazy, I could hear people screaming my name in all the villages we went through,” he said.
Among the general classification contenders, only France’s Thibaut Pinot and Colombian Egan Bernal finished in the first chasing group, 26 seconds behind Alaphilippe.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas ended up 31 seconds off the pace at the end of the lung-busting final uphill stretch.
The split occurred between Bernal and Thomas, who crossed the line in 12th and 13th places respectively.
Bernal and Thomas co-lead Team Ineos in the Tour after four-times champion Chris Froome was ruled out of the race because of injuries sustained in a crash at the Criterium du Dauphine last month.
Bernal is sixth overall, 40 seconds behind Alaphilippe with Britain’s Thomas in seventh, five seconds further back.
Groupama-FDJ’s Pinot, who is slowly emerging as Team Ineos’s main rival, is 12th, 52 seconds off the pace.
“It was a very nervy stage. The goal was to be well positioned in the key moments and not be caught in a split. Mission accomplished,” the Frenchman, third overall in 2014, told reporters.
Slovakian Peter Sagan finished fifth to take the lead in the points classification as he bids to claim a record-breaking seventh green jersey in Paris on July 28.
Tuesday’s fourth stage is a 213.5-km ride from Reims to Nancy with a likely bunch sprint finish.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)