By Julien Pretot
FOIX, France (Reuters) - Thibaut Pinot emerged as the strongest of the main contenders to win the Tour de France after dominating his rivals for the second successive day in the 15th stage, a 185-km mountain battle won by Briton Simon Yates on Sunday.
The Frenchman, who claimed victory at top of the iconic Col du Tourmalet on Saturday, left everyone gasping for air with a brutal attack seven kilometers from the finish in the final ascent to the Prat d'Albis.
He crossed the line 33 seconds behind Yates, who prevailed from the day's breakaway for a second stage win as his fellow Briton, defending champion Geraint Thomas lost further ground.
France's Julian Alaphilippe was among those dropped but he retained the overall leader's yellow jersey going into Monday's second rest day.
Behind Alaphilippe, five riders are within 39 seconds, setting the stage for a pulsating final week in the Alps.
"It's not a surprise that I cracked against the best climbers at the end of the second week, having given so much since the start," world number one Alaphilippe, who has never raced for the general classification, told reporters.
Alaphilippe still leads Thomas by one minute 35 seconds, Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk by 1:47 and fourth-placed Pinot by 1:50.
Thomas's Ineos team mate Egan Bernal, of Colombia, who was the last rider dropped by Pinot, is fifth overall, 2:02 off the pace.
"We have a very strong team and our plan worked today, even if Thibaut's attack was not premeditated," his Groupama-FDJ sports director Yvon Madiot said.
"It was a very good Pyrenean leg. Now onto the rest day and the Alps. We're not setting any limit."
Pinot was left delighted. "I gained time on everyone. It's very good and we must continue like this," he said, after writing off over two days the 100 seconds he lost to Thomas when caught at the wrong end of a bunch split in the crosswinds last Monday.
"When you have good legs you have to seize the opportunities."
No Frenchman has won the Tour de France since Bernard Hinault claimed the last of his five titles in 1985.
Pinot, after some great work from team mates David Gaudu and Sebastien Reichenbach had put some rivals in the red, made his move seven kilometers from the top.
Thomas and Kruijswijk were dropped as Bernal crushed the pedals to join the Frenchman, taking Alaphilippe and German Emanuel Buchmann in his slipstream.
But another burst from Pinot was fatal to Alaphilippe before Bernal and Buchmann eventually also lost the Frenchman's wheel.
Yates's advantage was, however, comfortable enough for the Mitchelton-Scott rider to grab another stage win.
Thomas saved his second place in the general classification with a late acceleration to finish 1:22 behind Yates and 51 seconds adrift of Bernal.
Thomas said he had good legs but did not want to attack after Pinot because Bernal was up the road.
"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," the Welshman said.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar and Ian Chadband)