First mountaintop finish brings Tour de France GC battle into focus

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The steep finish atop la Planche des Belles Filles did not disappoint.

After five days that delivered three sprint finishes, a solo breakaway, and a team time trial, the Tour de France ventured into the mountains Thursday, bringing the general classification picture into focus.

The stage — which started in Mulhouse, tackled seven categorized climbs across the Vosges, and finished atop the 7km climb up Planche des Belles Filles — was won by Belgian Dylan Teuns (Bahrain-Merida) ahead of Italian Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo), the two best men from the day’s 14-rider breakaway.

Teuns, 27, took stage honors but Ciccone, 24, was better placed on the general classification and moved into the yellow jersey. For both riders, both in their Tour de France debut, it was arguably the biggest moment in their professional careers.

“The yellow jersey was my childhood dream,” Ciccone said. “Today I made it come true. It’s a beautiful achievement. It’s hard to believe. I was pissed off that I lost the stage win but when I realized that I had the yellow jersey, the feeling of anger passed straight away. It’s wonderful.”

Behind them, the battle between the GC riders delivered some surprises, and confirmed that defending champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) is fighting fit. In the brutally steep final kilometer, Thomas surged past Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step), the wearer of the yellow jersey for the past three days, to finish fourth on the stage and take a handful of seconds from his biggest GC rivals.

“It’s one of those climbs where you really have to be patient and when Alaphilippe went pretty early, at like 800 meters to go, I just had to have the confidence to let him go and ride my own tempo and try and ride it all the way to the line,” Thomas said. “I was starting to blow though, as it was solid. Overall it was a decent day.”

Egan Bernal, the young Colombian who was granted co-leadership status alongside Thomas at Team Ineos, finished nine seconds behind Thomas, but alongside GC rivals Jakob Fuglsang (Astana), Mikel Landa (Movistar), and Richie Porte (Trek-Segafredo), and ahead of Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates), and Rigoberto Uran (EF Education First).

Thursday’s ride, as well time taken in Sunday’s team time trial, means that Thomas is now 26 seconds ahead of Uran, 30 seconds ahead of Fuglsang, and 52 seconds ahead of three-time Tour podium finisher Nairo Quintana (Movistar). Last year, Thomas won the Tour by 1:51 ahead of Dutchman Tom Dumoulin, who is absent this year due to injury.

Local favorite Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ), whose home is 10 miles from the stage finish, pipped Alaphilippe at the line for fifth, proving he should be considered a serious threat for the overall victory. Since his third-place finish in 2014, Pinot has struggled at the Tour, though he has finished fourth at the Giro d’Italia and sixth at the Vuelta a España.

Alaphilippe, the solo stage winner on Stage 3 in Épernay, put in a valiant effort to defend the maillot jaune, finishing sixth on the stage, but the 1:35 he lost to Ciccone, plus time bonuses Ciccone picked up on the final two summits, meant that the popular Frenchman was bumped into second overall.

And while Thomas didn’t win the stage or move into the race lead, he can take comfort in the fact that several of his biggest rivals have been excluded, or eliminated, from the general classification conversation. Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida), winner of the 2014 Tour de France, lost 51 seconds to Thomas. Romain Bardet (Ag2r La Mondiale), a three-time podium finisher, lost 1:09.

Also eliminated from the GC conversation was world champion Alejandro Valverde (Movistar), who sacrificed himself by riding at the front on the final climb for teammates Landa and Quintana; Valverde finished the stage 1:21 down on Thomas and is now over two minutes behind the defending champion.

“When Movistar went and Valverde was riding it was solid, I was feeling pretty good,” Thomas said. “I was just unsure as on those steep climbs I was expecting Richie Porte, Nairo Quintana, and obviously Egan to jump up there, so I was hoping for it to be hard all day before that. But it was a good day in the end.”

The Tour continues Friday with a flat stage destined for the sprinters. The weekend’s stages are hilly, but likely days for the breakaway with little impact expected on the general classification. After a rest day on Tuesday, the GC battle will heat up again with a mountain stage in the Pyrenees on July 18, followed by a 27km individual time trial in Pau on July 19.

From there, the peloton faces five high-mountain stages, where time differences between the top favorites will likely be measured in minutes, rather than handfuls of seconds.

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