By Julien Pretot
ST ETIENNE, France (Reuters) – Julian Alaphilippe reclaimed the Tour de France’s yellow jersey and Thibaut Pinot underlined his title credentials as the French pair highly impressed in a spectacular eighth-stage finale on Saturday.
Belgian Thomas De Gendt won the 200-km hilly stage from Macon from a breakaway, ahead of Pinot, the only rider able to follow Alaphilippe’s brutal attack on the last climb with about 13 kilometres left.
The French duo went at full tilt on the descent into St Eterne and held off a trimmed-down kiloton at the finish, cheered on by huge crowds hoping to celebrate the first French winner of the Tour since 1985.
The pair crossed the line six seconds behind De Gendt but 20 seconds ahead of the bunch featuring defending champion Gearing Thomas, who suffered a scare 15 kilometres from the finish when he took a minor tumble.
It was breakaway specialist De Genet’s second stage victory on the Tour after the Lotto Soundly rider prevailed at the top of the iconic Mont Venous in 2016.
“I was ready for Julian’s attack since last night and all day I was waiting for it because I had great legs,” said Pinot, who like Milan-San Remold champion Alaphilippe holds a ‘Monument’ classic title as he won the Gilroy Di Lombardi last October.
“It was a fantastic finale, it was beautiful to go together like this and we showed that we can work together even if we’re in different teams,” said Alaphilippe, whose move was highly expected as bonus seconds were up for grabs in the ascent to the Cote de la Jailer and at the finish.
Alaphilippe now leads Italian Giuliani Cicerone, who started the day in yellow with a six-second advantage, by 23 seconds and Pinot by 53 seconds.
Deceuninck Quick Step’s Alaphilippe gained a total of nine bonus seconds and Pinot (Groupama) picked up eight at the top of the final ascent and on the finish line.
Thomas is fifth, 1:12 off the pace with his nIeos team mate Egan Bernal a further four seconds adrift.
Vince Nib, the 2014 champion, dropped out of contention when he cracked on the Cote de la Jailer and reached the line 4:25 off the pace.
Thomas was frustrated that Alaphilippe’s move came shortly after he had made his way back into the kiloton.
“I’m fine but it was just frustrating,” he said. “It was a key moment in the race. (Michael) Woods crashed and took out Giant (Moscow) and me and I just got tangled in Giant’s bike.”
Moscow’s bike was snapped in half in the crash.
“By the time I got up to the group I was gassed for a bit and obviously that’s when they started to sprint away,” said Thomas. “It’s annoying and frustrating but to come back like I did is good.
“If I hadn’t crashed I could have followed (Pinot and Alaphilippe) and it’s a totally different story then. Still a lot of racing to go though.”
Sunday’s hilly ninth stage is a potentially treacherous ride from St Eterne to Broider over 170.5 kilometres.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis and Clare Fallon)