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by Neal Rogers
July 29, 2018
Photography by ASO/Pauline Ballet
A Team Sky rider, whose name is not Chris Froome, has won the 2018 Tour de France.
It would be wrong to say no one rated Geraint Thomas as a legitimate GC contender at this Tour — he won the Criterium du Dauphine in June, after all — but let’s be honest: Few, if any, were predicting that Thomas would win. That’s not to say his win came out of nowhere, it just didn’t follow pre-race predictions.
Chris Froome won the last three Grand Tours, and four of the last five Tours de France. Giro d’Italia fatigue or not, Froome was the pre-race favorite. The main question around the Team Sky leader was his salbutamol case, which slotted Thomas into a co-leadership position at Team Sky, though most assumed that meant the Welshman would be “Plan B” should Froome be prohibited from racing.
Over three weeks on the roads of France, Plan B became Plan A.
In 12 years as a professional, Thomas had never been a team leader at the Tour. He’d never finished in the top 10 of a Grand Tour. And with Froome at the start line, it was assumed he would commence with his role as a super-domestique — handy across the cobblestones, in the team time trial, and in the mountains. A top-10 finish wouldn’t be out of the question. Thomas had been sitting fourth overall heading into Stage 19 of the 2015 Tour before he had a collapse in the Alps. Take away that bad day, and he could be in with a shot for the podium, surely.
That, of course, is not how the race played out. On Sunday, Thomas will be crowned a Tour de France champion, the third Team Sky rider to win the Tour in seven years.
But how? How did Thomas surprise everyone and not only win the Tour, but win it convincingly, holding the yellow jersey for 11 consecutive days?
The Welshman took the maillot jaune on Stage 11, sprinting away from his rivals to take the stage win, and time bonus, at La Rosière. He said something along the lines of “I’ve won a stage and worn yellow, my race is made and I can work for Froome.” He won again the next day, atop l’Alpe d’Huez, finishing four seconds ahead of Froome on too of 10 seconds time bonus, and that was the moment something changed. Thomas was better than Froome — and as good or better than everyone left in the GC battle.
Thomas still spoke of supporting Froome — “Froomey is a four-time Tour winner, maybe the greatest of all time, he’s the one who is proven over three weeks” — but as the race wore on, it became clear Thomas was the stronger rider. All doubt was removed on Stage 17, the 65km day finishing on Col du Portet, when Froome faltered and Thomas did not. Thomas once again sprinted to the line, opening a slight gap and taking four seconds of time bonus; Froome was nursed to the line by teammate Egan Bernal.
Thomas had the answers to any and all attacks over the Tourmalet and Aubisque on Stage 19, and by the time he rolled out of the start ramp on Saturday, his 2:05 lead over Tom Dumoulin was insurmountable over a 31km course.
On paper, it might look like Thomas was just simply that much better than everyone else, raising questions of how a 32-year-old former track champion who had never been in the top 10 could defend yellow for 10 days and win the most prestigious Grand Tour in cycling.
But Thomas simply being that much better is not the full story of the 2018 Tour de France.
Thomas was very, very good, obviously. He rode at a higher level than he ever had before, without question. But there were several other factors that contributed to what he’s acknowledged was the race of his life.
Five of those factors are outlined below. Some — Team Sky’s critics — may not like this, perhaps suggesting it’s an attempt to explain what they see as unexplainable. Others — Team Sky’s defenders — may not like it, perhaps suggesting it takes away from Thomas’ achievement by reverse-engineering a happenstance path to victory at the world’s most difficult sporting event.
In the end, it’s neither. Grand Tour racing is nuanced and multi-faceted, with fortune, alliances, and objectives all changing in real time. There are no fluke winners at the Tour de France, but there are certainly factors that ultimately favor one rider over the others.
Over 20 stages, Thomas never crashed. He never had an untimely mechanical. He never missed a split in the field. I don’t recall him ever even having a puncture. For a rider who has had a half-dozen dramatic crashes over his career, both at Monuments like Milan-San Remo and the Tour of Flanders as well as at the Giro d’Italia and Tour de France, Thomas appears to have exorcised his demons. After years of mishaps, Lady Luck smiled on the Welshman.
“I have been unfortunate in the past,” Thomas said. “A lot of the crashes haven’t been my fault. Some have, obviously. I don’t dwell on it. People talk about it quite a bit, but I just get on with it, and blank it out.”
Thomas rode a flawless Tour, and that counts for a lot. Just ask Tom Dumoulin, who lost 53 seconds, plus a 20-second time penalty, on Stage 6 due to a broken wheel plus extended drafting behind his team car. In the end, those 73 seconds accounted to 65% of his time differential to Thomas.
And it’s not as simple as that; that deficit, before the race had even hit the mountains, changed the way Dumoulin raced against Thomas, forcing the Dutchman to attack. And because Thomas was always able to follow, those attacks were both wasted effort and demoralizing. Dumoulin’s mechanical and time penalty didn’t change the outcome, but it certainly changed the complexion of the GC battle.
Team Sky brought the strongest GC squad to this Tour. They may not have won the Stage 3 team time trial, finishing four seconds behind BMC Racing, and they didn’t win the team classification, won by Movistar. But Team Sky put two riders on the podium, and using the biggest budget in pro cycling, those riders were supported by an all-star squad. Luke Rowe, Gianni Moscon, and Jonathan Castroviejo handled duties across flat roads, while Wout Poels, Michal Kwiatkowski, and Egan Bernal were often pulling into the final kilometres in the mountains.
Just look at Team Sky’s performances in Saturday’s time trial, where Thomas, Froome, and Kwiatkowski finished second, third, and fourth, while Castroviejo and Poels, after defending the maillot jaune for 10 days, both finished inside the top 20. If Moscon hadn’t been sent home from the race after Stage 15 for punching another rider, he likely would have finished in the top 20 as well.
It’s impossible to overestimate how much a strong team helps win a Grand Tour, particularly for a rider like Thomas, who is not an explosive climber. For a rider like Thomas, with more of a diesel-type engine, there’s no better scenario than having teammates at his disposal, setting a hard tempo to his liking, discouraging any rivals from jumping away, and if they do, having the horsepower to help bring them back.
Team Sky has won the Tour six times in the past seven years. Thomas was part of Team Sky’s Tour squads every year save 2012, when he was focused on the London Olympics. The British outfit clearly has the wealth and experience to dominate the sport’s biggest race; Thomas has been an integral part of that, and now he’s been the ultimate beneficiary of it as well.
“Obviously we’re strong,” Thomas said Saturday. “If you look at all of our individual riders, they’re all amazing in their own credit. We work hard. We strive to be the best we can. We really wanted to perform. I think our biggest strength is not just the legs, but the heads, and how we ride together. The team has won this, it’s not just me.”
This is not a knock on Thomas — as mentioned, he’s ridden a flawless race — but he clearly benefitted from a weakened field of GC rivals.
Stage 9, across the cobblestones into Roubaix, saw Richie Porte abandon, and Rigoberto Uran and Mikel Landa crash heavily. Dan Martin crashed hard the day before the Roubaix stage, and spent the next two weeks on the back foot. An incident with a spectator on l’Alpe d’Huez saw Vincenzo Nibali exit the race.
The saying goes that a Grand Tour is won or lost in the third week, and by the time this Tour reached the Pyrenees, five top GC contenders were either at home or had seen their chances of racing for the win destroyed. Attacks in the Pyrenees from Porte, Uran, or Nibali — in combination with those from Dumoulin and Roglic — might have softened up Team Sky, but we’ll never know.
Much has been made of Thomas riding away from pure climbers such as Nairo Quintana and Romain Bardet — climbers who hadn’t been hampered by injuries — but these two former podium finishers just weren’t at their best. Quintana lost time in the Alps and only found his legs when his GC position had dropped sufficiently for him to fight for the stage win in the Pyrenees. Bardet lost a minute at La Rosière and was even worse on Col du Portet, ultimately saying he’d just never found the climbing legs he’d hoped for.
Count Froome among those GC riders who got off to a rocky start; on the opening stage, he crashed and lost 51 seconds. He would go on to finish the Tour just 33 seconds behind second overall.
In some ways Thomas’ win was reminiscent of the 2014 Tour, when Vincenzo Nibali won after both Froome and Alberto Contador crashed out in the first 10 stages; from that point on, Nibali seemingly could do no wrong. It’s all part of bike racing, but it also helps explain an unexpected winner.
It’s impossible to overstate how the mere presence of Chris Froome, the sport’s marquee Grand Tour racer, impacted the peloton.
The cumulative stress of winning the Giro, the cloud of his salbutamol case, his Stage 1 crash — along with pepper spray, a tackle by a Gendarme, and being booed and spat upon — all caught up with the four-time Tour winner. Froome rode a solid race, finishing second in the final time trial and third overall, but for Thomas, having the pre-race favorite within the same squad as a decoy and a domestique was a massive benefit.
We saw this early, on the Alps, when Thomas jumped away for the stage win at La Rosière on Stage 11 while Froome marked Dumoulin, and again the next day when Thomas was able to mark Dumoulin, who chased Froome’s attack. We saw it again at Mende on Stage 14, when Froome countered Dumoulin’s move, and then Thomas followed Froome, slightly distancing Dumoulin before the Sunweb rider clawed back on. It was only on Stage 17, when Froome finally lost contact on the Col du Portet, that it was clear once and for all who would be Team Sky’s leader.
“A big thanks to Froomey. He committed to me. He was really happy to see me do so well,” Thomas said on Saturday. “We’re good friends, and I really appreciated having probably the best stage-race rider ever riding for me.”
Journalists understandably poked and prodded for drama between Froome and Thomas at Team Sky, but as far as I could tell, there wasn’t any. Froome was magnanimous in how he handled the situation, praising Thomas’ performances, saying that what mattered most was a Team Sky victory, and riding in support of him, when he could, up and down the Col d’Aubisque.
“I’ve been a teammate and friend of [Thomas] for the past 10 years,” Froome said. “We do a lot of training together, we live quite close to one another, we spend a lot of time together. I’ve seen how he’s developed over the years. He’s been a massive part of my Tour de France victories over the years, and to see him here, now, in the shape that he was in at the Tour de France, it was clear to me that if he was going to be on the podium, he was going to be on the top step. And he’s managed to do it, which makes me really proud. I’m glad I was here to be part of it, and standing on that podium on the Champs-Élysées will be a dream scenario for us.”
By the time Thomas had won two summit finishes — taking GC time in addition to a pair of 10-second time bonuses — it was realistically too late for Dumoulin to do much of anything. Dumoulin had rightfully seen Froome as his biggest threat while Thomas, on the form of his life, was an equal adversary — and one who’d taken time in the team time trial and had not lost time to a crash or mechanical.
Similar types of riders — time trial specialists who can climb — Dumoulin had met his match in the mountains and, as we saw on Saturday, against the clock as well. Dumoulin attacked Thomas, but between Stages 11 and 19 the Sunweb rider never once took time back on the maillot jaune.
“Dumoulin is the type of rider that I am,” Thomas said. “If there was somebody else that was more punchy, I’d have to ride like Tom does, and let them go, but I was able to stay with Tom. That was good for the head.”
In the end, Thomas was the best rider across three weeks, strong against the clock and in the mountains, supported by a strong team and the defending champion, somewhat underestimated, and yes, also a bit lucky. And those are all factors that, if not necessary, certainly contribute to a Tour de France victory.
And Thomas’ own words match that assessment. “It’s just incredible,” he said on Saturday, his eyes welling with tears. “I believed I could beat the guys here, but to do it on the biggest stage, over three weeks… it’s insane. It’s surreal. It’s going to take a while to sink in, I think.”
Whether the stars will align again for Thomas at a Grand Tour remains to be seen. What happens at Team Sky at the 2019 Tour de France? Will Thomas and Froome again ride as co-leaders? And how long can it be until Egan Bernal becomes the team’s Tour contender?
These are the issues Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford will face after Sunday’s champagne hangover wears off.
In the context of producing a Tour de France victory, they’re good problems to have.
CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.