By Julien Pretot
COL DU TOURMALET, France (Reuters) – An enraged Thibaut Pinot put the hammer down on the first major mountain test of the Tour de France, leading a French one-two ahead of overall leader Julian Alaphilippe to triumph at the top of the iconic Col du Tourmalet on Saturday.
On a day of surprises, meanwhile, defending champion Geraint Thomas lost contact in the final kilometer of the brutal ascent to the cloud-clad Pyrenean pass ending 2,115 meters above sea level.
Surging from the mist, Pinot jumped away from a small group 200 meters from the line to beat yellow jersey holder Alaphilippe and third-placed Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands by six seconds.
Thomas, whose Ineos team has been used to smashing their rivals in the first high mountain stage of the Tour, crossed the line in eighth place, 36 seconds off the pace, throwing the British outfit’s challenge into doubt.
“It was a tough day out there. There’s still a lot more to come and hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow,” said Thomas.
His Colombian team mate Egan Bernal was fifth, eight seconds behind Pinot, who claimed his third career stage win on the Tour.
The in-form man of the first week, Pinot had lost one minute and 40 seconds when caught at the wrong end of a bunch split on the eve of the rest day on Monday and he had promised he would use his “rage” to bounce back.
The 29-year-old duly delivered, looking strong during the whole ascent to the Col du Tourmalet, a 19km climb at an average gradient of 7.4%, and accelerated just before the final bend.
“Justice is done with that win today,” said Groupama-FDJ manager Marc Madiot.
“I really wanted to win that stage, I had marked it down. There were delirious scenes of fans cheering us on, I had goose bumps and I needed the taste of victory,” Pinot, who has stage wins in all three grands tours and finished the Tour third overall in 2014, told reporters.
Pinot is now sixth overall, 3:12 behind Alaphilippe, who extended his lead over second-placed Thomas to 2:02 after hanging onto the favorites’ group.
“I defended the jersey like crazy today. There are some uncertainties in the race as some big leaders cracked,” said Alaphilippe, who has never previously raced for the general classification on a grand tour.
Kruijswijk is third overall, 2:14 off the pace, with Bernal 3:00 behind Alaphilippe, whose staying power was firmly under the spotlight on Saturday.
While he impressed, several top guns failed that same test spectacularly, with Briton Adam Yates finishing 6:42 off the pace and Colombian Nairo Quintana, a two-time Tour runner-up, ending up 3:24 behind Pinot.
Sunday’s 15th stage is a 185km punishing ride from Limoux, ending with a grueling ascent up to Prat d’Albis.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Tony Lawrence)