ALBI, France — Geraint Thomas and his teammates don’t need a mountain to deliver a hammer blow on their rivals at the Tour de France.
They can do it on the flat, too. With a little help from the wind.
The defending champion was the big winner of a chaotic Stage 10 in southern France on Monday when French rival Thibaut Pinot and other title contenders were caught napping by a treacherous combination of winds and narrow roads.
Unable to all ride at the front, Pinot and other riders got left behind when the winds first stretched and then shattered the peloton into groups over 35 frantic final kilometers (20 miles) of a 217.5-kilometer (135-mile) trek from Saint-Flour to Albi in south-central France.
Perfectly positioned at the front when the pack took different routes around a traffic circle, triggering the first split, Thomas and his Ineos teammates put pedal to the metal to make the gap on Pinot and other contenders caught behind as big as possible.
The bill for the French podium finisher in 2104, as well as Rigoberto Uran, Jakob Fuglsang, and Richie Porte was costly. They rode in a whopping 1 minute, 40 seconds behind Thomas.
“At the start we said at some point this race is going to split,” explained Luke Rowe, one of Thomas’ teammates. “We were all over it with numbers at the front.”
Once opened, the gap increased speedily, with yellow jersey-holder Julian Alaphilippe and Ineos riders setting a frenetic tempo until the end.
“We were straight on the front foot, we knew it was on us to drive it to the line,” Rowe said. “I was saying to the guys, `This is a TTT (team time trial) all the way to the finish line.”‘
Tour de France rookie Wout Van Aert won the stage with a sprint to the line. But Thomas was the headline act.
“I couldn’t think of anything better,” Thomas said. “It’s especially good on a day like today when you never expect it. It was just a positioning error from them and they lose a minute and a half. That’s how it goes.”
Ahead of big Pyrenean stages this week, Thomas vaulted to second place overall, 1:12 behind Alaphilippe, with teammate Egan Bernal in third place, four seconds further back.
After a flawless start to the race, it was Pinot’s first mistake, and a big one. Looking to become the first Frenchman to win the race since Bernard Hinault in 1985, he dropped from third to 11th overall, 2:33 behind Alaphilipple and 1:21 behind Thomas, perhaps not fatal to his Tour but a huge setback.
Pinot used an expletive to describe his day.
“What do you want me to say? There’s nothing to say,” he said, looking absolutely disgusted.
Tour de France director Christian Prudhomme was almost as disappointed.
“He was ideally placed in the Tour and to be trapped like that in the last 35 kilometers of the stage before the rest day is sad for him,” he said. “It’s a lot of time lost.”
The peloton split into three groups on a long but narrow section of road opened to the wind when Alaphilippe’s Deceuninck Quick Step teammates sped up the pace at the front to close the gap to six breakaway riders. The fugitives were reeled in with 25 kilometers (15 miles) left before Thomas and Co., working well with Alaphilippe’s team, pushed harder in an impressive display of collective strength.
“It’s not only in the mountains where you can gain time, we have a strong team for days like today, too, and that’s what we showed,” Thomas’ teammate Dylan van Baarle, said.
Enjoying another day in yellow, Alaphilippe said he and his teammates were thinking about placing Elia Viviani for the finish-line sprint when they accelerated, not deliberately trying to hurt Pinot.
“We didn’t plan to split the bunch. We only expected the stage to be nervous and tricky. Our intention was only to protect my yellow jersey and to focus on a sprint,” he said. “We knew precisely at which kilometer there was a risk of crosswinds. All teams gave the same instructions. There was a lot of stress and pressure in the peloton and when it split, everyone expected it, then we did the maximum.”
A three-time cyclo-cross world champion starting to live up to his billing as a future star, Van Aert is riding his first Grand Tour.
“The last 70 kilometers were very nervous,” he said after edging Viviani by just a few inches. Australian Caleb Ewan placed third.
Van Aert surged from the left in the last stretch and resisted Viviani’s comeback by throwing his bike at the line.
The up and coming Belgian said he got the OK from his team bosses to race for the win because his team leaders were trapped in the group behind. But even then he didn’t expect to beat recognized sprinters such as Viviani and Peter Sagan in a photo finish.
“It’s crazy,” he said.