Last year's race winner Geraint Thomas admittedly had better form on the third day in the Pyrénées. The defending Tour de France champion struggled to keep pace on the Col du Tourmalet finish a day earlier but claims he felt he had the legs to contend on the Stage 15 to Foix despite not being able to strategically pull the trigger on an all-out assault on the general classification.
The Team Ineos co-leader crossed the summit finish in seventh place 1 minute 22 seconds behind now two-time stage winner Simon Yates (Mitchelton-Scott), whose twin brother and Mitchelton-Scott leader Adam Yates cracked on the steep slopes of Tourmalet the day before. Thomas stayed in a small group of favorites before picking up speed in the last two kilometers to limit his losses to 49 seconds.
It was an overall loss of 24 and 55 seconds for Ineos team-mate Egan Bernal and Thomas, respectively, as Frenchman Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ) also bagged a six-second bonus for finishing the stage second behind Briton Simon Yates.
However, the Welshman did let yellow jersey holder Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) go with Bernal, risking the loss of more time to the overall leader.
"I felt better than yesterday, but same again, I needed to just try to pace it when it all kicked off," said Thomas. "[Team-mate Wout Poels] was really good, I just stayed with him. It was a shame, I got stuck behind Alaphilippe and we didn't want to pull with him on the wheel.
"So we let him ride a bit, jumped maybe 2k to go. A difficult one tactics-wise because I wanted to go, had the legs to go, but I wasn't going to chase down Egan with the guys on the wheel."
Alaphilippe eventually cracked and saw his lead on second-placed Thomas pegged back to one minute 35 seconds.
"It is such a mental game now," admitted Thomas. "Everyone is good, everyone is tired. Just need to block that out. It's easy to think about last year and think of all the good times, but I was suffering as well. Just got to bite the bullet and dig in."
Bernal is fifth overall, 2:02 off the pace, with Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk (Jumbo-Visma) and Pinot sandwiched between them.
“Time will play in someone’s advantage and someone will crack,” Ineos sports director Nicolas Portal predicted as the Tour was set to be decided in three Alpine stages between Thursday and Saturday.
Ineos have not decided yet on the team leadership between Thomas and the 22-year-old Bernal.
“G and I have good communication between us, and we are both honest." said the Colombian. "We need to win the race as Ineos, not as Geraint or Egan. So we need to be honest."
For current race leader Alaphilippe, there are no expectations to continue his dream run and every day in yellow is considered a bonus.
"It was really hard like we expected," said the 26-year-old Frenchman, who has three Tour stage wins adorning his palmarès, including two this year. "The goal was to keep the yellow jersey for one more day.
"I fought on the last climb and it's not a surprise I lost time, but I am really happy to be still in yellow.
"It is incredible, I never imagined before I'd be 10 days in yellow. I just want to enjoy it."
With back-to-back mountaintop results, including a win on Stage 14 and a runner-up to Yates on Sunday, Alaphilippe's compatriot Pinot has moved to within one spot of the podium at 1 minute 50 seconds off the maillot jaune thanks to a brutal attack seven kilometres from the finish in the final ascent to the Prat d’Albis.
“We have a very strong team and our plan worked today, even if Thibaut’s attack was not premeditated,” his Groupama-FDJ sports director Yvon Madiot said.
“It was a very good Pyrénéan leg. Now onto the rest day and the Alps. We’re not setting any limit.”
Pinot, who trails Kruijswijk by three seconds on GC, was left delighted. “I gained time on everyone. It’s very good and we must continue like this,” he said, after writing off over two days the 100 seconds he lost to Thomas when caught at the wrong end of a bunch split in the crosswinds last Monday.
One rider seemingly going unnoticed is Bora-Hansgrohe's Emanuel Buchmann. The 2015 German road race champion notched two-straight fourth-place stage results to close out the Pyrenees and currently finds himself sixth on GC, just 12 seconds behind Bernal - 2:14 behind yellow.
"I had another strong day where I felt really good, with perfect legs," said Buchmann. "When Pinot attacked, it was the first time I felt on the limit but I was able to follow him initially. However, he was constantly launching attacks and I realised he was too strong for me to go all the way to the top with him. So, I decided to ride at my own pace.
"I'm happy with my result in the stage and the GC. The final week will be decisive, but in my view, this Tour de France is more open than the previous years because there isn't any big team strong enough to have total control of the race.
"Right now, Pinot seems to be the strongest and is flanked by a fairly strong team, so he could be the favourite but, again, we still have one important week ahead of us."