By Julien Pretot
ST LARY PLAT D'ADET France (Reuters) - With the focus on the podium battle between youngsters Romain Bardet and Thibaut Pinot in the Tour de France, another Frenchman, veteran Jean-Christophe Peraud, blossomed late in the race on Wednesday.
Peraud, 37, who has only been a road race professional for five years, is Bardet's team mate at AG2R-La Mondiale.
He is fourth in the overall standings, 6:08 behind Italian Vincenzo Nibali, but a mere eight seconds adrift of the 24-year-old Pinot.
Pinot retained his third place overall despite struggling in the 17th stage on Wednesday.
Bardet, 23, lost almost all hope of finishing on the podium when he relinquished the white jersey for the best Under-25 rider to Pinot by cracking in Tuesday's Pyrenean stage to Bagneres de Luchon.
On Tuesday, Peraud managed to finish with Pinot despite the FDJ.fr rider's brutal acceleration in the last climb and on Wednesday, he was the one dropping the young gun.
He powered away from the group of favorites in the climb up to Le Plat d'Adet with yellow jersey holder Nibali and gained more than 50 seconds on Pinot.
"It's the third week, it's tough every day," said Peraud, his face dripping with sweat. "It's all in the head now."
Peraud benefited from Bardet's presence ahead of him in the last climb after his team mate had slipped away in the preceding descent.
"He was my launch pad, it really helped," said Peraud.
Bardet had no complaints.
"I'll keep trying to make the final top five," he said.
"At the end of the day, the legs do the talking. Peraud is the only rider able to follow Nibali uphill in this Tour.
"I've got no problem being behind him. We're two riders from the same team targeting the final top 5 of the Tour de France and our cooperation is perfect."
Peraud joined the Lotto team in 2011 after taking the silver medal in the mountain bike cross-country race at the Beijing Olympics.
He is a well-equipped climber who also has good time trial abilities, having been crowned French champion in the discipline in 2009.
He is better than Pinot in the solo effort against the clock and should make up for his eight-second deficit in Saturday's final time trial, which comes after Thursday's demanding mountain stage from Pau to Hautacam.
Peraud has gradually improved, finishing ninth overall in the 2012 Tour de France and crashing out of last year's race in the last week while he was ninth overall.
"I'm really happy that I managed to hold Nibali's wheel. I'm lucky he worked with me and I thank him for that," said Peraud.
"But let's not get ahead of ourselves. I can lose everything tomorrow."
Pinot conceded his podium chances took a knock on Wednesday.
"Today was not a good day," he said. "I would need to be one minute ahead of (Alejandro) Valverde or Peraud to finish on the podium."
Pinot now only has Thursday's stage to make up for lost time. The last Frenchman who finished on the Tour de France podium was Richard Virenque, second behind German Jan Ullrich in 1997.
(Reporting by Julien Pretot, editing by Tony Goodson and Martyn Herman)