After riding a rather conservative race to date, Team Ineos showed their fangs by unleashing one of their two co-leaders on the final climb of Stage 18. But instead of defending race winner Geraint Thomas making the move on yellow, it was the Welshman's team-mate Egan Bernal launching an impressive assault on the dramatic slopes of the Col du Galibier.
Bernal's advantageous attack, thanks in part to Thomas's approval, allowed the 22-year-old Colombian to bite back 32 seconds on Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-QuickStep) and leap-frog Thomas into second overall (+1:30).
"For us it was really good. I gained a little bit of time on Alaphilippe so I'm really happy for that," Bernal explained. "G asked me how I was feeling. I said I was feeling really good, so he asked me to attack to try to move the race. Then he tried to come with me, but once he saw the guys were on his wheel he stayed with them."
While Bernal was en route to finishing eighth overall behind winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar), Thomas was rallying to limit any losses and maintain his 1-minute 35-second deficit on general classification.
"We wanted it to be hard but the pace just wasn’t really there," said Thomas. "The call was made for Egan to just go and hopefully that might kick it off a bit. And it didn’t really – Mas just started riding his tempo. That’s when I went as well, just to test how everyone was. At least Egan gained some time on everyone else."
While three stages remain, including what is typically a ceremonial pass around the Champs-Élysées in Paris for the yellow jersey holder on the final day, two decisive stages remain in the Alps, starting with a 126.5-kilometre day in the saddle from Saint-Jean-de-Maurienne toward the 'roof' of the Tour (2,770 metres in elevation) then on to Tignes (2,089m) before finishing on the mountaintop final at Val Thorens (2,365m) a day later on Stage 20.
According to Thomas, Bernal's strike combined with his own counterpunch fits into the Ineos strategy to soften the race leader's grip on the maillot jaune.
"I was feeling pretty good today," he said. "Two big days to come now. We kind of knew that today wouldn’t be a huge difference and it would be hard to drop Alaphilippe. But it’s certainly going to put some fatigue in everyone for the next two days."
For the 27-year-old Alaphilippe, who has been in yellow all but two days since first securing it from Mike Teunissen following his Stage 3 victory in Épernay, a better-than-expected descent and a lot of support from his QuickStep team-mates helped maintain the overall lead for at least one more day.
"Today I knew it was a hard day but it was hard for everybody," said Alaphilippe. "I've had lots of support from team-mates who have worked for me and I tip my hat to them because this is not a team for the mountains.
"Everybody is motivated to give their maximum and give a hand—like Viviani who is a sprinter but helps at the start of a col. He wants to help me. That motivates everybody. I can only give the best of myself and if I crack near the top I don't think I can go faster down a descent than I did today. I saved the jersey."