SAINT-ETIENNE, France – As their country prepares to celebrate Bastille Day, Julian Alaphilippe and Thibaut Pinot were in the mood for fireworks a day in advance at the Tour de France.
Carrying the hopes of a country that has not seen a homegrown Tour winner in 34 years, the French pair emerged as the big winners on Saturday of the leg-punishing Stage 8 in the Massif Central which saw Geraint Thomas crash and lose ground in the defense of his title.
After five hours of exhaustion on the saddle across seven short but punishing climbs, Alaphilippe claimed back the yellow jersey with one of his trademarks attacks while Pinot asserted himself as a strong contender for the final victory by gaining time on Thomas and Co.
A spectacular rider with an aggressive style, Alaphilippe is, however, limited in mountains and has no real hope of keeping the jersey to the end. But Pinot is in the form of his life. He can compete with the best above 2,000 meters, an asset giving him hope he can succeed cycling great Bernard Hinault, the last Frenchman to win the Tour in 1985.
“They've got some real punch,” Thomas said. “They're the ones to watch.”
Alaphilippe abandoned his yellow jersey for just six seconds to Giulio Ciccone on Thursday at the Planche des Belles Filles ski station. He knew he had a golden chance to get it back on rollercoaster terrain suiting his skills.
“I will wear the yellow jersey on Bastille Day, for a Frenchman there is nothing better,” Alaphilippe said after finishing the stage in third place, just behind Pinot.
Thomas De Gendt won the 200-kilometer (124-mile) trek after a long breakaway effort at the front.
With bonus seconds at play at the summit of the final categorized climb, the Cote de la Jaillere, Alaphilippe surged from a small pack of favorites near the top, with Pinot on his wheel.
The brutal attack was left unanswered and Alaphilippe went over the mountain in second position behind De Gendt, claiming five precious bonus seconds. Working well with Pinot, they went all out in the downhill and kept the pressure on in the final kilometers leading to Saint-Etienne's Geoffroy Guichard soccer stadium.
“I've been working hard for that, but it goes beyond my hopes,” Alaphilippe said.
“This is the bike racing I love.”