By Julien Pretot
FOIX, France (Reuters) – Team Ineos were dominated in the mountains again on Sunday, but the British outfit were confident time would play in their favor as the Tour de France heads into a grueling third week.
Defending champion Geraint Thomas did not react when Thibaut Pinot attacked on the final ascent to the Prat d’Albis in the 15th stage and lost time to the Frenchman for the second straight day after losing contact in the climb to the Col du Tourmalet on Saturday.
Thomas’s team mate Egan Bernal, fifth on the stage, followed Pinot’s move but the Colombian was eventually distanced by the Groupama-FDJ leader, who after prevailing on the Tourmalet gained time over all his rivals again.
But that was all part of the plan, Ineos sports director Nicolas Portal insisted.
“Egan played it well, it was the plan (for him, not Thomas, to follow attacks),” the Frenchman told reporters after Bernal lost 18 seconds to Pinot on Sunday.
Thomas, seventh on the day, stayed in a small group of favorites before picking up speed in the last two kilometers to limit his losses to 49 seconds.
It was an overall loss of 24 and 55 seconds for Bernal and Thomas, respectively, as Pinot also bagged a six-second bonus for finishing the stage second behind Briton Simon Yates.
“It’s kind of a difficult one, tactics-wise, because I wanted to go, I had the legs to go but I wasn’t going to chase down Egan with the guys in the wheel,” said Thomas.
However, the Welshman did let yellow jersey holder Julian Alaphilippe go with Bernal, risking the loss of more time to the overall leader.
Alaphilippe eventually cracked and saw his lead on second-placed Thomas pegged back to one minute 35 seconds.
Bernal is fifth overall, 2:02 off the pace, with Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk and Pinot sandwiched between them.
“Time will play in someone’s advantage and someone will crack,” Portal predicted as the Tour was set to be decided in three Alpine stages between Thursday and Saturday.
Ineos have not decided yet on the team leadership between Thomas and the 22-year-old Bernal.
“G and I have good communication between us, and we are both honest,” the Colombian said. “We need to win the race as Ineos, not as Geraint or Egan. So we need to be honest.”
Communications should be better within the team, though, said Bradley Wiggins, the 2012 winner with Team Sky, Ineos’s previous name.
“Where was the communication? Why was Bernal up the road if G (Thomas) had good legs? I think Bernal should have been there with G going up the final climb,” Wiggins, on the Tour as a pundit for Eurosport, said.
“I think G rode the climb best of all of them, even better than Bernal, but I’d like to know what was going on there. G is the team leader, the defending Tour de France champion and he wasn’t able to attack because his team mate was up the road.”
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ian Chadband)