By Julien Pretot
EPERNAY, France (Reuters) – Defending champion Geraint Thomas lost five seconds to Ineos team mate Egan Bernal in the Tour de France’s third-stage finish on Monday as early questions were raised over the British team’s leadership.
Those seconds may not count for much after almost 3,500 kilometers of racing, but Thomas giving up time in a 500-metre effort at a gradient of 8% should give Bernal, one of his main challengers, early confidence.
Bernal and Thomas were named co-leaders by team principal Dave Brailsford after four-times Tour champion Chris Froome was ruled out of the race following a crash at the Criterium du Dauphine last month.
All eyes were to be on the duo in Thursday’s sixth stage to La Planche des Belles Filles, the first hilltop finish of the Tour.
But the first crack in the armor appeared on Monday with Thomas unable to stay with Bernal and another main contender, France’s Thibaut Pinot.
Although the short effort was a very specific one, Thomas was expected to stay with his team mate, but he was caught at the wrong end of a split, finishing 13th, 31 seconds behind stage winner Julian Alaphilippe of France.
Bernal and Pinot crossed the line 26 seconds off the pace and Bernal leads Thomas by five seconds overall and Pinot by 12.
Thomas, however, played down the time loss.
“The short steep climbs aren’t necessarily what I love,” he said. “I think today was a punchy day where I would normally struggle the most, and with limited racing coming in here, but it was OK.”
Thomas’s preparations were hampered as he abandoned the Tour de Suisse last month following a crash, which meant he could not fine tune his preparations in the week-long race’s mountain stages.
“I felt really good yesterday and then today obviously I wasn’t dancing up the climbs but it was okay. I didn’t really do more than had to be done,” the Briton added.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Ed Osmond)