ÉPERNAY, France (VN) — Defending Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas (Team Ineos) watched his teammate and co-captain Egan Bernal ride free in the punchy finale of stage 3 to gain five seconds on him. During the closing climb to Épernay, the 22-year-old Colombian made the split with only one other general classification rider, Thibaut Pinot (Groupama-FDJ). Thomas slipped behind with all the others.
Thomas did not know and did not speak about the gaps at the team bus, but indicated that he did not want to give everything today in an early technical stage.
“I knew I wouldn’t have had the legs to go for the bonus sprints [on the Côte de Mutigny with 16 kilometers to race], or if I’d tried, it would have been 100 percent maximum effort and I wasn’t looking for that,” Thomas said. “I could see some of the guys up there, [Julian] Alaphilippe, and said yeah, ‘Let them go for it.’ It was a case of getting to the finish then, and trying to be safe. So yeah, I think it was a good day all in all.”
Julian Alaphilippe (Deceuninck-Quick Step) attacked on the climb and then rode solo for the remaining kilometers to win the stage and take the leader’s yellow jersey. On that final ramp, with only 300 meters to the finish, the door opened and Bernal slipped through with a group of strong men including Michael Matthews (Sunweb) and Peter Sagan (Bora-Hansgrohe), who finished second and fifth, respectively.
Bernal tried to go with Alaphilippe when the Frenchman initially launched his attack, but lacked the power to match the surge in pace. He sat up, and then remained attentive for the final push.
“I didn’t really know what was going on behind me, so I couldn’t see where the other GC guys were,” Bernal said. “All I can say for sure is that it was a really hard day. Alaphilippe was really impressive. I’d tried to follow him with a view to going for the time bonuses, but it was impossible. I think everyone has suffered a lot today.”
The 22-year-old Colombian raced his first grand tour at the 2018 Tour, when he helped Thomas win. With Froome out with injury and Bernal flying this spring, winning the Tour de Suisse, Ineos named him as co-captain along with Thomas.
Today, Thomas wasn’t interested in matching the punchier riders of the peloton. He admitted to not burying himself on terrain that didn’t suit his strengths, and to looking ahead to the bigger mountain days yet to come.
“If I had tried, it would’ve been 100 percent maximum effort and I wasn’t keen for that,” Thomas said, referring to the Côte de Mutigny. “When you see the guys that were going with Alaphilippe, it was a hard one. Today was a punchy day, and one where I’d normally struggle the most, especially considering the limited racing coming in here. But I was okay.”
Thomas and the other GC contenders now look ahead to stage 6, a critical day that features the first summit finish of 2019 at La Planche des Belles Filles.