Team Ineos are not racing against Julian Alaphilippe as the Tour de France enters a crucial high-mountain phase, according to sports director Nicolas Portal.
Frenchman Alaphilippe has proven himself a dangerous man to hold the yellow jersey, after he emphatically won the stage 13 time trial and tightened his grip on the race lead.
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But Ineos sports director Nicolas Portal says the British team are not racing against Alaphilippe, instead riding to their own pace.
Geraint Thomas, currently in second behind Alaphilippe (Deceuninck – Quick-Step), says the team must be wary as there are still 15 other contenders who could threaten to upset the reigning champion.
Speaking ahead of the pivotal Tourmalet summit finish on stage 14, Portal said: “We’re not racing against him, we’re racing for ourselves. If we do something, it’s not to push someone else back, we’ll do it because we think it’s the right pace for our guys. We want to make it harder and who drops drops. If it’s Julian, it’s Julian. If it’s another rider, it’s another rider. It’s a long race. It’s a marathon and let’s see what today brings.”
Alaphilippe pounced on his opportunity to take the race lead on the stage three to Épernay, briefly losing it to Giulio Ciccone (Trek-Segafredo) before regaining it on the road to Saint-Étienne on stage eight
The 27-year-old puncheur has proven himself a phenomenal one-day racer and stage hunter, but his Tour de France 2019 performance has raised questions about whether he could win the Tour.
When asked if he regretted allowing Alaphilippe to take the race lead on stage three and again on stage eight, Portal said: “No, at that point when he attacked he was clearly the strongest. There was no way for us to follow, no one could follow him.
“He’s the best. [During the time trial] yesterday he was riding faster than anyone on the climbs, faster than anyone on the flat and on the downhill. There’s no regret, he’s just the strongest, you have to accept that.”
Just moments after Geraint Thomas set the fastest time on the TT in Pau, Alaphilippe soared up the final climb to beat the Welshman by 14 seconds, as French fans roared for the home win in the yellow jersey.
Portal added: “We knew we could hold the yellow jersey, but to win in it is something really impressive. This is a massive performance.
‘Winning a time trial in the yellow jersey, chapeau. Who knows what’s going to happen today.
“We just have to be focussed on ourselves. I think the race will be hard enough anyway. We will learn much more on the climb and obviously after the stage.”
Despite losing time to Alaphilippe, Thomas extended his lead over familiar GC rivals in the time trial, but was disappointed not to claim stage honours.
Speaking outside the Ineos team bus before stage 13, Thomas said: “I think it was a good result in a way, if you take away Alaphilippe.
“Obviously that put a bit of a downer on it, it would have been good to win the stage and start to get a bit of time back on him, but he’s riding really well. We’ll see how he goes at the end of this week and next.”
Team Ineos’s young hopeful Egan Bernal was disappointed with his time trial, slipping two places down to fifth on general classification, 2-52 down on Alaphilippe and around 1-30 down on Thomas.
When asked he was now the clear leader in the squad, Thomas said: “Hopefully [Bernal] will be there with me in the final and we can work together and start to get a bit of time back. It’s not just about Alaphilippe either; it’s the other 10 or 15 guys behind us who are threats as well.
“I think we’ll see how it goes. If I feel good enough I’ll try and have a go.”