By Julien Pretot
COL DU TOURMALET, France (Reuters) – Champion Geraint Thomas admitted he felt “quite weak” as he lost further ground on race leader Julian Alaphilippe and other top contenders in the first big mountain test of the Tour de France on Saturday.
The Briton lost contact with the front-runners in the final kilometer of the ascent to the Col du Tourmalet, unable to sustain the pace as Thibaut Pinot snatched victory in the 14th stage ahead of fellow Frenchman Alaphilippe and Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk.
“I just didn’t feel quite on it from the start really to be honest – just quite weak,” Thomas told reporters after ending up eighth, 36 seconds behind Pinot.
In all of their six Tour wins, the team led by Dave Brailsford had always claimed a stage win before stage 14. Thomas and his team mate Egan Bernal, who finished eight seconds off the pace in fifth place, were expected to stamp their authority on the race on Saturday.
Ineos instead remain winless on the Tour this year but Thomas refused to get frustrated.
“At the end I just knew I had to try to pace it. I didn’t really attempt to follow when they kicked,” he explained.
It was all about restricting the damage at the end of a punishing ride from Tarbes, where Pinot’s Groupama-FDJ and Kruijswijk’s Lotto Jumbo-Visma showed their strength.
“I thought it was better just to try to ride my own pace and limit my losses that way, rather than stay with them and blow up on the steepest bit at the end,” said Thomas, who now trails Alaphilippe by 2:02 minutes.
“Maybe I should have tried to stay with them – it’s just one of those days. I was hoping I’d come round a bit. On the last climb it was just a matter of staying there for as long as possible.”
Thomas also needs to be wary of the threat posed by Kruijswijk, who is third overall 12 seconds behind the Briton, and fifth and sixth-placed Emanuel Buchmann of Germany and Pinot, who are now 1:10 adrift of the Welshman.
Thomas, who had appeared to take the upper hand on Bernal after the Colombian had a disappointing time trial on Friday, now only leads the Colombian by 58 seconds and he was left hoping for better days as the peloton faces a huge test of strength in Sunday’s 15th stage.
“It was a tough day out there. There’s still a lot more to come and hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow,” he said.
“What happened today is a big surprise for many. It was the first day of the pure battle for the overall with big climbs. Personally I felt well and that makes me happy,” said Bernal, who was told not to wait for Thomas when his team mate struggled.
“As a team, Geraint Thomas has lost some time and that’s not good. I was available to help him but, through the radio, they told me not to wait for him.
“We all have a bad day at the Tour de France, yesterday was mine. I don’t know if we can win the Tour de France. I know that the defending champion is my team mate. I won’t go against the instructions of my team. If I’m asked to help, I will do. If I’m given freedom, I’ll try to make the best of it.”
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar and Tony Lawrence)