Geraint Thomas declared himself over the blip which cost him time in the Pyrenean mountains as he looked ahead to the decisive stages of the Tour de France and an expected battle for supremacy with home hopeful Thibaut Pinot.
France is dreaming of a first home victory since Bernard Hinault in 1985 after Groupama-FDJ’s Pinot enjoyed a superb weekend with victory on the Tourmalet before further gains on Sunday.
But Thomas and Team Ineos spent Monday’s rest day trying to restore the narrative that it is the defending champion who remains favourite to wear yellow in Paris after leader Julian Alaphilippe finally showed signs of weakness on Sunday.
Thomas may have complained of feeling “weak” as he conceded time in the Pyrenees, but if this was a bad patch he has emerged in an enviable position.
Rivals are bunched up behind him – just 39 seconds covering Thomas in second to Emanuel Buchmann in sixth – but it is the Welshman in pole position should Deceuninck-Quick Step’s Alaphilippe now fall away as expected.
“Obviously on the Tourmalet I wasn’t feeling 100 per cent but it was more just a fuelling thing over a few days rather than anything else,” Thomas said.
“Yesterday I finished really strongly so it’s not an issue.”
Thomas may have complained of being between “a rock and a hard place” tactically on Sunday with co-leader Egan Bernal ahead of him on the road, but he dismissed concerns over co-leadership on Monday.
“Everyone makes out it’s difficult in the team for us two, but other teams have a bit more stress to try and get rid of us both,” he said. “It’s a great position for us to be in.”
Ineos have hardly dominated the race as they have in winning six of the past seven editions.
This is the first time they have not held yellow at the second rest day since 2014, while the ‘Sky train’ that used to lead the peloton up every mountain has not appeared in Ineos colours.
Team principal Sir Dave Brailsford will no doubt miss the reassuring sight of his riders in complete control, but claimed it was bringing back happy memories of the velodrome.
“It’s more like track racing, the Madison or points or sprinting when the strongest guy doesn’t always win,” he said.
“It’s back to the days sitting in the corner with Shane (Sutton) who was a genius tactically. Which is why I like the sport if I’m honest.”
After Tuesday’s flat stage – in which the main obstacle is expected to be temperatures soaring as high as 40 degrees – and a rolling day on Wednesday, the race will head to Thomas’ favoured terrain in the Alps.
The general classification is superbly poised in what is shaping up to be the most open, unpredictable Tour since 1989, with Steven Kruijswijk, Pinot, Bernal and Buchmann all bunched up behind Thomas.
Pinot is the man in form, having gained 101 seconds on the defending champion in the space of 48 hours – riding “angrily” after his 100-second loss in crosswinds last week.
Combined with Alaphilippe’s still 95-second lead, Pinot’s surge has seen home hopes explode.
Team Sky often faced hostility on the roadside in France for their stifling tactics, Chris Froome even having urine thrown at him, but Thomas is not concerned about a repeat if he were to destroy that dream.
“I don’t think there’ll be strange behaviour,” he said of French fans. “If they come out and support their guys that will just add to the atmosphere and it will make the racing even more enjoyable.
“We never (get any love) here so it’s no different.”
Pinot seems the man most likely to deliver for France given his form on the climbs, but the 29-year-old, third in 2014 at the age of 24, must show he can now handle the pressure the race brings with it – something which has troubled him in the past.
“I’ve learned to manage all this and see the good side of things,” he said. “It’s not like before, where every little thing got to me. Right now I’m in my Tour de France bubble and I’m happy.”
Alaphilippe seemed calm too, not entirely resigned to his fate but certainly aware of what it may be.
“I’m a realist,” he said. “One minute 30 is a good advantage but with the stages to come it won’t be easy.”
Still, he hopes to take the fight to the Alps, where Thomas could face a battle on two fronts, both of them French.
“I’d love it, I’d relish it,” Thomas said. “Bring it on.”