COL DU TOURMALET, France (Reuters) - Julian Alaphilippe hedged his bets when asked about his chances of winning the Tour de France, but together with Thibaut Pinot, he is leading a French renaissance that could deliver a first home title since 1985.
Alaphilippe leads the race by more than two minutes after stage 14, while Pinot, an impressive winner at the top of the iconic Col du Tourmalet on Saturday, is proving to be the best climber.
Alaphilippe is the world’s top-ranked road racer but has never before challenged for the Tour’s general classification.
Yet after finishing second to Pinot on Saturday, he holds a 2:02 advantage over defending champion Geraint Thomas, who struggled in the final part of the 19-km ascent to the Tourmalet.
Asked what he would tell a friend who wanted to bet on him to claim the title in Paris on July 28, Alaphilippe said with a smile: “I would tell him to keep his money so we have some to celebrate with anyway.”
France have rarely been this close to celebrating a first overall victory since Bernard Hinault claimed the last of his five wins 34 years ago.
Laurent Fignon went agonisingly close in 1989, when he lost to American Greg Lemond by eight seconds.
Yet all too often since then, the French have been a “laughing stock” in the peloton, according to Pinot’s sports director at Groupama-FDJ, Philippe Mauduit.
The French almost disappeared off the radar entirely in the doping-tainted early 2000s, but their recent resurgence has been impressive.
They have claimed victories in ‘Monument’ classics with Arnaud Demare and Alaphilippe winning the Milan-Sanremo in 2016 and 2019 respectively while Pinot triumphed at the Giro Di Lombardia last year.
French riders have also finished on the Tour’s podium four times in the last five years through Jean-Christophe Peraud and Pinot in 2014 and Romain Bardet in 2016 and 2017.
With French president Emmanuel Macron watching from race director Christian Prudhomme’s car, Pinot was the strongest on the Pyrenean climb as he bounced back from a positioning error that cost him 1:40 on the flat on Monday.
Pinot is 3:12 off the pace in sixth place overall, yet his performance in the opening week and on Saturday showed he could be the man to beat in the mountains and the Tour still has one Pyrenean and three Alpine stages to go.
“I just want to take it day by day,” said Pinot, who has stage wins on all three grands tours.
“But my goal is to be on the podium in Paris, it’s clear.”
In recent years, the Tour has been dominated by British outfit Sky - now Team Ineos - as they took a total grip on the race with their riders winning six of the last seven editions.
It was not the case on Saturday, however, as Pinot’s Groupama-FDJ, Movistar and Steven Kruijswijk’s Lotto Jumbo-Visma were the most visible teams at the front as Ineos were outnumbered by the Dutch team in the finale.
“Today we saw some big names struggling, some of them cracked before me,” Alaphilippe said.
“There are now a lot of strong teams. My team are strong, Lotto Jumbo are strong,” said Pinot, who benefited from a mammoth effort by his 22-year-old team mate David Gaudu.
“We have to stay humble, everything can change very fast.”
Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis