By Julien Pretot
BAGNERES DE LUCHON France (Reuters) - Romain Bardet had promised to "blow up the race", but it was Thibaut Pinot who set off the fireworks on the ascent to the Port de Bales on Tuesday's 16th stage of the Tour de France.
Pinot, who climbed to third in the overall standings, was the strongest of the general classification contenders on the 11.7-km climb as podium rivals Bardet and American Tejay van Garderen cracked.
Spain's Alejandro Valverde, who is second overall, had his Movistar team set a fearsome tempo from the foot of the ascent and Van Garderen was the first of the top guns to drop back.
Bardet was struggling at the rear of the group and slipped back when Pinot's FDJ.fr team mate Arnold Jeannesson upped the pace significantly.
"We showed that we are an incredible team," Pinot, who trails yellow jersey holder Vincenzo Nibali of Italy by 5 minutes and six seconds, told reporters.
Pinot is 29 seconds behind Valverde, who was unable to hold his wheel on the Port de Bales, and moved 1:34 ahead of Bardet and 4:19 clear of Van Garderen in the overall standings.
"It was a treacherous stage for me, this morning I was not very confident," said Pinot.
"After the Port de Bales there was a descent that I don't like."
Pinot admitted last year that he feared the descents, when riders sometimes hit 100 kph. He worked on this during the off-season and this year he has shown huge progress in this area.
He naturally feels more comfortable when surrounded by team mates and had Jeremy Roy for company on the descent from the Port de Bales.
Roy, who had been dropped from the morning's breakaway, waited for Pinot for about five minutes to accompany him down.
"I stopped (in the descent), there was a spectator who was listening to the radio and who was saying 'Van Garderen out, Bardet out, Valverde out'," Roy said.
"I said how many are there going to be left at the top (of the climb)? It's the first time that I wait for the team leader like that but it was really worth it."
Pinot showed few ill effects of the knee injury he suffered when he hit the handlebars two days ago.
"I am proud of my lads," said sports director Yvon Madiot.
"We were a bit tense this morning, Thibaut having been a bit bothered with his knee. Yesterday he took it really easy (during the rest day.
"He's a rider who likes to attack, he's not a follower," added Madiot.
"We were a bit afraid of Van Garderen ahead of the time trial but we put him far back."
After two more stages in the Pyrenees, the overall standings will be decided on Saturday with a 54-km individual time trial, before Sunday's procession into Paris.
Van Garderen is expected to dominate Pinot in the solo effort against the clock, but he now has a huge deficit to make up.
"I took 1:30 to Bardet and I'm better than him in time trials so I now hope to keep the white jersey," said Pinot.
"Now (for the podium) I hope to gain more time on (fourth place Jean-Christophe) Peraud and Van Garderen. If I manage to do that I can reasonably hope to keep that place.
"But the most important is the podium. If I'm on the podium I'll probably win the white jersey."
The last Frenchman to finish on the podium in Paris was Richard Virenque in 1997.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot; Editing by Toby Davis)