FOIX, France – When one French rider starts to fade, another comes to the fore. One way or the other, France may still 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 French race leader Julian Alaphilippe to edge closer to the yellow jersey in the overall standings.
Ascending the last uphill finish in the Pyrenees with a display of power and fluidity that signaled that he'll 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 today ahead of what promises to be a climactic final week in the Alps, the race is exquisitely poised.
Six riders are all within 2 minutes, 14 seconds of each other at the top of the standings.
The six terrible ascents above 2,000 meters (6,500 feet) in the Alps, peppered over three mountain stages, will likely decide who will stand on top of the podium on the Champs-Elysees 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 ride, three days after his first stage victory in the southwestern mountain range.
Pinot, 29, was irresistible when he made his move seven kilometers from the summit. Only Emanuel Buchmann and defending champion Geraint Thomas' teammate Egan Bernal could follow. But Pinot accelerated again about 2 kilometers later to drop them for good.
Pinot moved to fourth place overall, 1 minute, 50 seconds 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 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 and cracked, yet managed to salvage his 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 about Pinot.
Yates, the Vuelta defending champion, was given a free reign by the peloton when he took part in an early breakaway as he was not a threat overall. He made his decisive move about 9 kilometers from the line.
“I'm very proud of that,” Yates said of his second victory at this Tour.