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Meanwhile Julian Alaphilippe says yellow jersey "hanging by a thread"...

Defending Tour de France champion Geraint Thomas says he is “itching to go” as the race heads away from the Pyrenees towards his more favoured terrain of the Alps where three stages later this week will determine the winner of the 106th edition – with Team Ineos boss Sir Dave Brailsford suggesting the battle could even come down to the very last climb.

Three-quarters of the way through a battle for the overall win that is the closest seen in many years, with the five riders behind surprise leader Julian Alaphilippe separated by just 39 seconds, Thomas has not yet reproduced the form that last year saw him win back-to-back mountain stages on his way to victory in Paris.

Those victories came at La Rosiere on Stage 11, when he took the yellow jersey, and the following day at Alpe d’Huez and speaking in Nimes on the second rest day of the race to the BBC Bespoke podcast and the Guardian, the Welshman said he felt “really strong” at the end of yesterday’s Stage 15 to Foix and that he is “relishing the Alps.”

Thomas, who lies second on GC 1 minute 35 seconds behind Alaphilippe, said: “I feel motivated to get there and try and finish this Tour off well. It’s been slightly up and down, compared to last year. I’m itching to go now. I much prefer the Alps. I’ve got a lot better memories of there.”

Team Ineos colleague Egan Bernal lies fifth, 27 seconds behind Thomas, who insisted there was no intra-team rivalry, adding: “Obviously, I want to be the one to win. The main thing is that we don’t race against each other and throw away the race.

“We’ve got to be honest with how we are feeling. If I’m on a really bad day and I just tell Egan to stay with me and we ride together and both lose a minute then that’s obviously not the way to go. I’m confident that we can keep that communication and honesty going.”

Alaphilippe’s leadership of the race, and a huge weekend for Groupama-FDJ’s Thibaut Pinot who won on the Tourmalet on Saturday and attacked again yesterday, his performances overturning the 1 minute 40 he lost due to crosswinds on the way to Albi this time last week, have France ablaze with the prospect of a first home winner since Bernard Hinault in 1985.

Should Alaphilippe falter, Pinot – now fourth overall, 1 minute 50 seconds behind his compatriot, and only 15 down on Thomas – would, as the form rider, be many people’s pick to prevail and Brailsford said that a win by either would be good for cycling as a whole.

He said: “If a French guy won the Tour de France then I think it would be a brilliant thing for the sport, for the Tour and it would be something that would light it all up. We’d have to go back to the drawing board but I think it would be a shot in the arm for the whole sport.”

Alaphilippe himself says he is taking the race “day by day” and has acknowledged his Deceuninck-Quick Step team is not set up to defend the race lead.

The Frenchman, yesterday dropped by his overall rivals for the first time in the race, said: “My jersey is hanging by a thread, but I’m very proud to have it on my shoulders.”

He added that he was trying not think about his rivals, and couldn’t say whether one is better than the others, but singled out Pinot, who has proven himself the strongest climber in the race to date, “to continue to attack and to race in an aggressive manner to shake up the course of things.”

Brailsford acknowledged that the French rider’s continued leadership of the race had contributed to its unpredictability.

“Nobody, myself included, expected Alaphilippe to hang on this long into the race,” he explaineed.

“Everyone was thinking ‘We have to do something to get rid of this guy, but we don’t want to overcook ourselves getting rid of him,’ because we were thinking inevitably he was going to go anyway.

“Everybody has been caught in the middle waiting to see what everyone else would do which is why the race is so uncontrolled.”

Brailsford added that the race could be heading towards a thrilling finale in the final Alpine stage to Val Thorens on Saturday.

He said: “You can’t rule it out on the very final climb. The last 800 metres, going up through the village there, you couldn’t rule out the race coming down to the finish on that very last mountain.”

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.