Thibaut Pinot Surges Into Contention at Tour de France

FOIX, France — When one French rider starts to fade, another comes to the fore. One way or the other, France may be on course for its first Tour de France winner since 1985.

Dancing over his saddle, his mouth wide open and gasping for air, Thibaut Pinot launched a ferocious attack Sunday and profited from the first signs of weakness in the high mountains from his countryman Julian Alaphilippe, the race leader, to edge closer to gaining the yellow jersey.

Ascending the last uphill finish in the Pyrenees with a display of power and fluidity that signaled that he would also be a major contender to win the Tour, Pinot gained time on all his rivals for the second consecutive day, following his triumph at the famed Tourmalet mountain in the previous stage.

Heading to the second and final rest day Monday ahead of what promises to be a climactic final week in the Alps, the race is exquisitely poised. Six riders are within 2 minutes 14 seconds of one another at the top of the standings.

The six terrible ascents above 6,500 feet in the Alps, peppered over three mountain stages, will most likely decide who will stand on top of the podium on the Champs-Élysées next Sunday.

“The high mountains have only just begun,” Alaphilippe said. “The Alps are going to be a big mouthful.”

Surging from the mist and rain, Pinot crossed the finish line of Sunday’s Stage 15 in second place, 33 seconds behind Simon Yates, who posted a second stage win after a long solo raid, three days after his first stage victory in the southwestern mountain range.

The 29-year-old Pinot was irresistible when he made his move seven kilometers from the summit. Only Emanuel Buchmann and Egan Bernal, a teammate of the defending champion, Geraint Thomas, could follow. But Pinot accelerated again about two kilometers later to drop them for good.

Pinot moved to fourth place over all, 1:50 behind Alaphilippe.

“The weather conditions and the stage were good for me, I had good sensations, I needed to make the most of it,” Pinot said. “I need to keep going up in the general classification. The most difficult stages are looming.”

While Pinot was escorted by his faithful Groupama-FDJ teammate David Gaudu in the final ascent toward Prat d’Albis, Alaphilippe was isolated without a single teammate to help him in the 12-kilometer climb, but he managed to salvage the yellow jersey.

Alaphilippe was so exhausted after his effort up the hill, where he grimaced through the rain, that he had to grip a roadside barrier afterward while he caught his breath.

“If I crack, I hope he’ll carry the torch for the French,” Alaphilippe said of Pinot.

Thomas, who had already conceded time to Pinot at the Tourmalet, remained second in the general classification. He was dropped when Pinot took the lead from a reduced group of contenders but did not panic. He rode at his pace until he accelerated with 1.5 kilometers left to cut the overall gap on Alaphilippe from 2:02 to 1:35. Steven Kruijswijk of the Netherlands stood third over all, 1:47 off the pace.

Thomas said after the stage that he could have tried to follow Pinot earlier but instead opted for a conservative approach because he did not want to bring back Alaphilippe to the front. Bernal was with Pinot, and Thomas would not take the risk of chasing down their common rival. Bernal, a Colombian with excellent climbing skills, remains involved in the fight for the yellow jersey, 2:02 behind Alaphilippe.

“I felt better than yesterday, but I needed to try to pace it when it all kicked off,” Thomas said. “It’s a difficult one, tactics-wise. I wanted to go, I had the legs to go, but I wasn’t going to chase down Egan Bernal with Alaphilippe on my wheel.”

Coming right after the ascent of the Tourmalet, Stage 15 ran close to the ancient Cathar castles and was a punishing ride totaling more than 39 kilometers of climbing.

Yates, the Vuelta defending champion, was given free rein by the peloton when he took part in an early breakaway, as he was not a threat over all. He made his decisive move about nine kilometers from the line.

“I’m very proud of that,” Yates said of his second victory at this Tour.

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