GAP, France (Reuters) - After a couple of quiet days in the heat, the Tour de France enters its decisive phase with three successive gruelling Alpine stages, where the much-anticipated French v Ineos battle will finally be settled.
Julian Alaphilippe is the race's overall leader with a 1:35 minute advantage over Ineos' defending champion Geraint Thomas.
With the riders placed between second and sixth separated by just 39 seconds, the chasing pack led by Thomas are a constant threat to Alaphilippe's hopes of ending France's 34-year wait for a home-grown champion.
Frenchman Thibaut Pinot, fourth overall and 15 seconds behind Thomas, was the standout rider in the Pyrenees. He was closely followed by Thomas' Colombian team mate Egan Bernal, who lies 12 seconds further back in fifth place.
Dutchman Steven Kruijswijk is third and German Emanuel Buchmann is fifth. Both have been climbing well but without much fanfare as all eyes have been on the French and Ineos riders.
Alaphilippe lost ground in last Sunday's Pyrenean stage but, despite having never raced for the general classification before, the holder of the yellow jersey will not go down without a fight.
"Physically I'm tired, like everyone else, but I have never been that strong mentally to hurt myself," said Alaphilippe.
"I cannot wait."
Another competitor who cannot wait is Pinot, who is also hoping to become the first Frenchman to win the Tour since Bernard Hinault claimed the last of his five titles in 1985.
While France have two riders in the mix for the Tour title, Pinot and Alaphilippe are not in the same team. Ineos, however, have both Thomas and Bernal in their ranks and will be hoping to make that count.
ANYTHING CAN HAPPEN
Thomas showed signs of weaknesses in the Pyrenees, but his experience cannot be discounted in a three-week race.
"I've been feeling a lot better, so anything can happen. We've seen in this race already so much has happened and I'm sure a lot will continue to," said Thomas.
Thursday's 18th stage is a 208-km trek to Valloire with three climbs taking the riders way above 2,000 metres - a situation that could favour Bernal, who is used to high altitude having grown up in Colombia.
"They are calm and it's in their interest to blow up the race, they have the strongest team," said Alaphilippe.
"I don't have that kind of team to support me in the mountains."
While Buchmann has mostly been on his own in the climbs, Kruijswijk can depend on team mates George Bennett and Laurens De Plus to pace him in the ascents.
Similarly Pinot can rely on his 22-year-old lieutenant David Gaudu.
The 29-year-old Pinot also has the advantage of being familiar with Friday's 19th stage which finishes at Tignes, where he lives part of the year to train and knows the final climb inside out.
"Tomorrow is a big, long stage, so it's gonna be a battle. We're not going to wait for Val Thorens (on Saturday) to get it going," the Frenchman said.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Pritha Sarkar)
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