By Julien Pretot
CASTRES, France (Reuters) – Team Ineos are already poised for a Tour de France triumph before the race even enters the high mountains after a brutal display of strength on the eve of the first rest day.
It had looked like being a tight battle between defending champion Geraint Thomas, his team mate Egan Bernal and in-form Thibaut Pinot, but the Frenchman was thrown off course by a gust of crosswind in Monday’s 10th stage.
Although the hardest part of the race has yet to come, the Ineos duo are second and third overall with yellow jersey holder Julian Alaphilippe of France not considered a threat for the title.
Thomas leads Bernal by for four seconds and Pinot, who was 19 seconds ahead on Monday morning, is spending the rest day reflecting on a positioning error that caught him on the wrong end of a split.
He is now 11th, 1:21 behind Thomas, and it was a sobering moment for the French fans hoping for a first home-grown champion since Bernard Hinault in 1985. It also means that with Pinot and other top contender Jakob Fuglsang now far behind, the race might be less exciting.
Ineos team manager Dave Brailsford was not apologising, however.
“I live and breathe and think all day about sticking the knife and when you get the chance twisting it,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
“To be at this point of the race at the first rest day, second and third overall on GC (general classification) is probably the best it could be for us,” Brailsford, who led the British outfit to six of the last seven Tour titles, added.
Thomas was also in upbeat mood.
“It’s been excellent,” he said. “Things are really starting to heat up.”
There are still one individual time-trial and two stages in the Pyrenees this week before one of the hardest Alpine blocks of racing in recent Tour history in the final week.
But Thomas and Bernal are ahead of the pack and they only have to do what they excel at — defend their advantage with the best team of the peloton.
“We don’t have to (attack). We might want to but we don’t have to,” said Brailsford.
Ineos have also enjoyed a quieter Tour than in previous years when they were called Team Sky and doping allegations against their riders triggered angry reaction from the fans along the route.
“It’s true that if you think about the crowds… everything has been fine, and not just on the Tour but considering what happened on the Tour last year it was not flattering from our compatriots – some of them – but can’t draw any conclusion,” said Frenchman Nicolas Portal, the team’s sports director.
“The fact is that we’re not being insulted. It’s the opposite from last year. It’s quiet and it almost seems weird.”
(Editing by Ed Osmond)