Why this Tour de France has become as much a chess game as a grind to the finish line

NIMES, France -- A larger-than-life gilded canine statue -- a boxer, by the looks of it -- dominates the lobby of the hotel where several Tour de France teams are staying in this southern city. One of them is the French Groupama-FDJ squad led by Thibaut Pinot, whose gala weekend in the Pyrenees has many pegging him as the big dog of this race.

Pinot prefers to see it as a pack, and he's right. Several riders are barking at the heels of overall leader and fellow Frenchman Julian Alaphilippe, with whom Pinot shares the blessing and potential burden of rabid home support. And that, Pinot said, is to his advantage as he tries to close down a gap that has shrunk to less than two minutes.

"For the moment, I think it's Julian who has that [pressure]," Pinot said Monday as an electric fan whirred in his direction on the hotel patio, offering only the slightest respite from the sweltering 100-degree heat. "We have two French riders in the top four. I don't feel as if I'm carrying this alone, and that's a good thing for me.

"If the pressure was crushing me, I wouldn't be here, I think. And I wouldn't have won [Stage 14] on the Tourmalet. It's these big occasions that push me and give me an edge. It's like being in your home stadium.''

Like anyone crunching the standings, Pinot knows that the Tour will contract swiftly if Alaphilippe -- untried in the crucible of leading a three-week race -- were to fade or implode over a grueling trio of stages in the Alps starting Thursday.

Five men, including Pinot, are within 39 seconds of each other behind the Deceuninck-Quick Step leader. Only one of them knows what it's like to ride away with the golden fleece. Down the street on Monday morning, defending champion Geraint Thomas of Team Ineos spoke softly about the value of experience.

"I know how to perform over three weeks and be consistent and not have a big dip,'' said Thomas, currently in second place. "Maybe a little blip here and there. But it's certainly a lot different, this race, to the last year, for sure.''

Different in its tautness, and distinct in the sense that Ineos has not dictated events unilaterally as it has in the recent past. But there's one familiar echo: The team has two overall contenders in Thomas and Colombia's Egan Bernal, giving rise to inevitable questions of when and how to choose one to protect. Ineos, previously known as Team Sky, has visited this intersection before, with Bradley Wiggins and Chris Froome in 2012, and with Froome and Thomas last year.

Ineos general manager Dave Brailsford, who spoke a week ago of "twisting the knife'' after Thomas & Co. distanced Groupama and others in the crosswinds, has set aside that figurative cutlery for the moment and spun around to the strategic puzzle posed by Alaphilippe's unexpected disruption of cycling-as-usual.

"We've got to defend against Pinot and attack Alaphilippe,'' Brailsford said. "Normally that would be contradictory. With two guys on GC [overall classification], that's the opportunity.''

Solving that equation is a change of pace from "parking the bus," as Brailsford put it, a soccer metaphor for blocking the goal with near-impenetrable defense -- the previous modus operandi of Sky when sitting on big leads.

"To be honest, I don't mind it at all,'' Brailsford said of the challenge. "It's nice to be able to put our wits against the opposition tactically as well as physically.'' When he left later for a ride in full team kit, he wore sunglasses with yellow trim.

Thomas said he had some regrets about not surging earlier on Sunday's final climb, when Bernal, now in fifth place, followed Pinot's move and picked up time. His hesitation betrayed the lapse in confidence he felt at the base of the Prat d'Albis, which Thomas said is sorted out now. "I think the most important thing there was that I felt really good and strong,'' he said. "I think other teams have a bit more stress to try and get rid of us both.''

Pinot repeatedly downplayed any hyperbole about his chances. However, he was plainspoken about the damage he felt he'd inflicted not only with Saturday's stage win on the Tourmalet but also Sunday, when he attacked off the front of a selective leaders' group near the top of the Prat d'Albis and finished second behind British stage winner Simon Yates.

"Trying to make up time and trying to lose the least time possible are two different things mentally,'' Pinot said of Ineos. "I think yesterday made their legs hurt more than mine.''

As a candidate to be the first French Tour winner since 1985, Pinot has been fielding breathless questions like this one, posed Monday: "Is this the chance of your life? Are the planets aligned?''

He's ready for them now, unlike a few years ago, when he exuded more of a brooding persona. That has come in handy given the what-if game he might be playing with this knowledge: He'd be just 10 seconds off Alaphilippe's lead had it not been for his losses in the crosswinds a week ago.

Pinot was looking from side to side as he entered the patio where a media throng awaited him. He tripped slightly but didn't fall and smiled at his own minor clumsiness. He knows vigilance will be needed over the next few days, but he's also not expecting perfection.

"I have to stay clearheaded and not get too excited,'' he said.

"There will be days where I'm good and days where I'm not good at all. I've learned to manage all this and see the good side of things. I'm not like before, where every little thing got to me. Right now I'm in my Tour de France bubble, and I'm happy.''