LA MONGIE, France -- After fasting for so long at the Tour de France, the French are feasting.
Watching on a mountaintop monitor, Groupama-FDJ team general manager Marc Madiot screamed himself hoarse as Thibaut Pinot surged forward and claimed Stage 14 on the Col du Tourmalet. Behind him, two crucial and related subplots were playing out amid the splintered remnants of the peloton.
Overall leader Julian Alaphilippe did what he had to do and more, tucking in on the wheel of defending champion Geraint Thomas for much of the climb, and then staying with other contenders when Thomas faded.
The result: a second straight day of time losses for Thomas, who ceded another 36 seconds to Alaphilippe, and new questions about whether Team Ineos should shift its hopes to young Colombian climbing specialist Egan Bernal, who sits almost a minute behind him.
Pinot, whose teammate David Gaudu put in a fearsome amount of work leading him up the 12-mile climb, gained just 10 seconds on Alaphilippe but gave himself a huge morale boost and now sits at 3 minutes, 12 seconds back, the same gap as Germany's Emanuel Buchmann, who has lurked on the edge of the spotlight for the first two weeks of the Tour.
The Netherlands-based Jumbo-Visma team, whose leader, Steven Kruijswijk, is 2:14 off Alaphilippe's pace, had three riders left in the last, selective group on the Tourmalet and sent them to the front in a show of force close to the top. Their pace was what finally forced Thomas off the back.
Jumbo's George Bennett, still coughing from having inhaled smoke from a flare apparently set off by fans at the base of the mountain, said Kruijswijk is well positioned to chip away at Alaphilippe's lead.
"It was a great day for us,'' said the Kiwi rider. "We need to keep going like this. We can't get too excited.
"I wasn't surprised by Alaphilippe, but I was surprised by Thomas. I could see something was funny when they all went off the front [of the peloton.]''
As expected, the long, steady, but not steeply pitched climb of the Tourmalet that capped the 73-mile stage turned into an extended battle of attrition, with the most aggressive attacks coming near the end.
Last year, Thomas took over the yellow jersey for good in another short mountain stage with an uphill finish. But that was a different course with two hors categorie (beyond classification) climbs along the way and a more omnipotent squadron, then known as Team Sky.
Team Ineos' current situation -- riders in second and fourth place, with the Tour's toughest climbs bunched up in the final week -- would seem enviable to most. But such is its recent dominance that seeing Thomas roll backward is jarring.
As fog descended at La Mongie, where team buses awaited riders coming over the top of the Tourmalet after the finish, Ineos director Nicolas Portal downplayed any sense of burgeoning panic. Portal said he was "a little bit surprised'' at Thomas' day: "It's the type of climb that fits him very well."
Asked point blank whether the team might look to the 22-year-old Bernal -- who regained the best young rider's white jersey Saturday -- Portal understandably hedged. "We have to analyze,'' he said. "But the thing is, if you want to attack, you need to make sure you have the legs. You don't want to attack and blow everything.''
Meanwhile, Alaphilippe's jersey defense might be a solo moonshot if Saturday is any indication. The one teammate who would be expected to shepherd him in the mountains, Spanish rider Enric Mas, was dropped with about 3.5 miles to go. Alaphilippe found himself near the back of the leaders' group but clung tenaciously to Thomas' wheel and even allowed himself to think about chasing down Pinot at the end -- but refrained.
"When I have seen big names losing contact with our group before me, that thrilled me,'' he said. "I continue to take it day by day. I have to recover from this Tourmalet stage. Tomorrow will be very difficult again. Already today's stage has made a lot of damage, and there will be a lot of changes before Paris. I pushed my limits to remain in the front group.''
Overall hopes imploded for a lot of teams Saturday, and as the spotlight narrows, it will shine more intensely on Alaphilippe's evolution-in-progress as a Grand Tour threat -- a largely unforeseen development that will inevitably raise questions in a sport wary of growth spurts. Each day of this Tour, it seems, is circled as the day Alaphilippe can't possibly maintain his momentum. Sunday will bring another summit finish and another chance for France to keep dining on success.
"I think there's gonna be a lot of guys tomorrow paying for today,'' said Team Trek-Segafredo's Australian leader Richie Porte, one of those distanced on the Tourmalet. But, he added, "I think [Alaphilippe] is here to win it. He's absolutely flying. He's obviously the [in-]form rider at the moment.''