Geraint Thomas must pin his hopes on summit special over the next two days if he is to retain his Tour de France crown.
As Thomas failed to crack long-time race leader Julian Alaphilippe on the feared Col du Galibier, his Team Ineos sidekick Egan Bernal moved back above the defending champion in the general classification on stage 18.
Now the Prince of Wheels must attack Alaphilippe on the two mountain-top finishes before Paris – or the Yellow Jersey will be coming ‘home’ for the first time since 1985.
His best hope could be Friday’s ascent of the Col de l’Iseran – the highest point of the race at 9,087ft – but there is a sense that Thomas is running out of road.
© Getty VALLOIRE, FRANCE – JULY 25: Geraint Thomas of United Kingdom and Team INEOS / Public / Fans / during the 106th Tour de France 2019, Stage 18 a 208km stage from Embrun to Valloire 1419m / TDF / #TDF2019 / @LeTour / on July 25, 2019 in Valloire, France. (Photo by Tim de Waele/Getty Images)
And it would help if the Ineos think tank outlined a clear leadership strategy, because the debrief from a punishing day in the Alps sent out only mixed messages.
Thomas rode away from Alaphilippe inside the last mile of the long haul up the Galibier, but the Frenchman closed the gap comfortably during the 10-mile run downhill to the finish, after 129 miles of punishing terrain from Embrun to Valloire.
Team Ineos had earlier been unsuccessful in appealing the race commissaires’ decision to kick their road captain Luke Rowe out of the race, along with Germany’s Tony Martin, after their brief spat on Wednesday.
And Thomas hinted that he missed his wingman dictating the tempo as Bernal, who was cleared by high command to attack two miles from the final summit, edged ahead of him by five seconds on the leaderboard.
© Reuters Another mountain stage ticked off and Alaphilippe still wears the yellow jersey
Thomas said: “We wanted a hard pace but unfortunately we just ran out of guys. The call was made for Egan to go and that kicked it off – after that, I couldn’t do much other than follow.
“I had a little dig to see if anything was going to happen and the guys followed me over the top, but it was a good day for Egan gaining some time.
“We knew it would be hard to drop Alaphilippe today, but there are two more big days to come and a lot of racing left.”
Bernal later insisted it was Thomas who told him to release the handbrake, claiming: “It was G’s decision – he asked me how I was feeling, I told him I was feeling really good, so he asked me to attack to try and move the race.
© EPA-EFE/REX Thomas is still 95 seconds behind Alaphilippe, but team-mate Bernal has shunted him down to third overall
“He tried to come with me, but when he saw the other (GC) guys on his wheel, he just stayed with them. But I attacked because he asked me to attack.
“We needed to gain time on Alaphilippe. I don’t care what happened with G, he is my team-mate and we needed to gain time. I think we did a really good race.”
While Bernal made the only move among the GC’s top six, another Colombian – Nairo Quintana, three times on the podium but never a winner of Le Tour – made serious headway, slashing his deficit on Alaphilippe from almost 10 minutes to 3min 54sec.