Tour de France, Stage 15 verdict: Thibaut Pinot takes thrilling race to boiling point

Tom Cary
The Telegraph
Yates took the win in Foix for second stage victory in the space of four days - Velo
Yates took the win in Foix for second stage victory in the space of four days - Velo

Apparently there is another heatwave headed for France this week, with temperatures set to rise well above 40C for the second time in the space of a month. As if this race could get any hotter. It’s already on fire.

Debate raged on Sunday night as to whether this fascinating, topsy turvy Tour de France could be the most exciting edition since 1989, when Greg LeMond famously pipped Laurent Fignon by eight seconds, the tightest winning margin in the race’s history.

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Coincidentally, 1989 was the last time the French had a rider properly in the mix. Now they have two - Julian Alaphilippe and Thibut Pinot - and the country is going cycling silly. L’Equipe is churning out spreads by the dozen, president Emmanuel Macron is turning up for photo ops in the Pyrenees and the country is gripped to its television screens. If either of Alaphilippe or Pinot rides into Paris wearing yellow on Sunday, it will be cycling’s equivalent of France 1998. A national day of celebration.

Trying to predict what will happen in this race has become a mug’s game, though. It just keeps on defying predictions. 

Sunday's 15th stage, from Limoux to Foix, was eventually won by Simon Yates. It was the Briton’s second stage victory in the space of four days. But he ended up being a footnote as the most intriguing general classification battle in years exploded behind him.

Pinot was the biggest winner for a second day running. The FDJ rider, who won Saturday’s epic summit finish on the Tourmalet, showed again that he has the best legs of the GC riders at present, attacking the yellow jersey group 7km from the summit finish in Foix and putting serious time into his rivals. 

Those rivals included, for the first time in this race, Alaphilippe. Everyone had been waiting for it and the moustachioed maillot jaune finally cracked on the Prat d’Albis, the final climb of the day. Distanced initially when Pinot attacked, Alaphilippe lost time again when Thomas rode away from him 2km from the top. He ended up heaving and wretching over the barriers. Crucially, though, Alaphilippe remains in yellow. His lead may be diminished. It now stands at just 1min35sec over Thomas. But he has a rest day to recover, then a flat stage in Nimes tomorrow, then another lumpy-looking sort of a day to Gap. If he can recover sufficiently by the time the race reaches the Alps - where the race ends with three punishing climbing days on Thursday, Friday and Saturday - he could still be a factor.

Either way, the next five riders behind him - Thomas, Steven Kruijswijk [Jumbo-Visma], Pinot, Egan Bernal [Ineos] and Emanuel Buchmann [Bora-Hansgrohe] - are separated by just 39 seconds and they all have ambitions. It is impossible to call.

Pinot appears to have the legs, Jumbo-Visma the strongest climbers, while Ineos have options with both Thomas and Bernal up there on GC. 

That poses its own problems, though, with the issue of leadership continuing to dog the British team. 

When Pinot attacked on Sunday, only Bernal initially had the legs to go with him. But it was not long before Thomas was seen on his radio asking urgent questions. He later explained that he did not want to attack and bring Alaphilippe back to the front. "It was a difficult one, tactics wise,” he said. “I wanted to go. I had the legs to go. But I wasn't going to chase down Bernal with Alaphilippe on my wheel.”

One might ask, if he had the legs, why he did not go with Pinot when the Frenchman first attacked. Thomas, though, is a climber in the Bradley Wiggins mould. He prefers to pace himself up climbs. Conversely, you can understand why the team allowed Bernal his head after Thomas’s collapse the previous day. They had to.

The encouraging thing, from Thomas’s perspective, is that he had found his legs by the end of the stage, putting 27secs into Alaphilippe by the finish. After the Welshman’s wobble on Saturday he is right back in this race. The concern is that Ineos may not know their best strategy.

“Where was the communication?” asked Wiggins, who is now working as a pundit on Eurosport. “Why was Bernal up the road if G had good legs? G is the team leader, the defending champion and he wasn’t able to attack because his team mate was up the road.”

Ineos can expect plenty of questions along those lines at their rest day press conference in Nimes on Monday. 

The mercury is rising in France but this fascinating race has already reached boiling point.

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