Third, fourth and fifth on the stage.

Today at the Tour: Team Sky’s leadership question, answered

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After a week of “Will he? Won’t he?” speculation surrounding Chris Froome and the maillot jaune within Team Sky, we have our answer.

He won’t. On Wednesday in the Pyrenees, he couldn’t even if he had wanted to.

It appears as though the cumulative stress of winning the Giro d’Italia, the uncertainty of his salbutamol case, his Stage 1 crash, and being booed and spat upon for three weeks in France has all caught up with the four-time Tour winner.

Froome was gapped off a select group of podium contenders with 3km to go on the 16km climb of the Col du Portet Wednesday, and was nursed to the line by teammate Egan Bernal, ceding 52 seconds to teammate and yellow jersey Geraint Thomas, who finished third on the stage, 47 seconds behind Nairo Quintana (Movistar).

Froome now sits third overall, 2:31 behind Thomas. The questions surrounding Team Sky’s leadership at this Tour de France have been answered. There will be no moment of decision made in the heat of battle, no window into Froome’s character for the entire world to witness and to judge.

It was a seminal moment in British cycling history. With the exception of 2014, when he abandoned the Tour with injury after just five stages, Froome has not been beaten at the Tour de France since 2012, when he rode in support of Bradley Wiggins and often appeared to be holding back for Wiggins in the mountains.

Wiggins became the first British Tour winner in history that year, but Froome took over leadership at Team Sky the following season and held that title for five years — until today.

Now, after winning all three Grand Tours consecutively, and with the prospect of joining the illustrious list of riders to win the Tour de France five times, Froome, 33, has ceded leadership of Team Sky to Thomas, his longtime friend and domestique who is one year younger.

It’s premature to call it a turning point, but barring disaster, Thomas will win this 2018 Tour de France. Froome will not, and he may not even reach the podium.

After marking an early move by Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo), the defending champion lost contact inside the final 3km and dropped from second to third overall on the 65km stage from Bagnères-de-Luchon to the summit of the Col du Portet, ceding 43 seconds to Tom Dumoulin, while Thomas increased his GC lead over Tom Dumoulin by nine seconds, to 1:59.

“[Froome] told me with 4 or 5km to go that he wasn’t feeling great,” Thomas said. “There was no way I’d have attacked him, but it made me understand that the others had to be in trouble, too. I followed Roglic and Dumoulin and I went for the bonus seconds of third place, and I also got a time gap.

“I think I’m in a good position now, but it doesn’t change the mental approach we have. I’m not going to be carried away or complacent. We’ll continue riding well as a team — that’s our strength. It might be hard to believe after what happened between him and Brad [Wiggins], but Chris and I are honest and open with each other. That makes the success of our team.”

With the maillot jaune on his wheel, Egan Bernal (Team Sky) set a hard pace up the Col du Portet but was required to drop back and pace defending champion Chris Froome inside the final 3km.

Froome also lost 43 seconds to fourth-placed Roglic, who attacked several times and has been climbing his way up the classification in this final week. Froome now sits 32 seconds behind Dumoulin, and 16 seconds ahead of Roglic.

Given the way things are trending, as Roglic makes gains in the final week and Froome appears to be fading, Froome must now focus on preserving his podium position, which appears to be in jeopardy.

For the marquee Grand Tour rider of the past five years, it can’t have been an easy day. Yet Froome was magnanimous in his appraisal of Thomas’ performance, and forthcoming about his own.

“I just didn’t have the legs in the final,” Froome told reporters at the finish. “I’ve won the last three Grand Tours now and [Thomas] has ridden an absolutely faultless race this year, so he fully deserves to be in the yellow jersey. Fingers crossed he finishes it off and gets the job done to Paris.”

Adding insult to injury, after a summit finish he’d like to forget, Froome, wearing a jacket that covered his Team Sky kit, was stopped and tackled to the ground on his way back down the Portet by a Gendarme who mistook him for a spectator.

Though Froome is a proven time trialist, with a pair of Olympic bronze medals in the discipline, Roglic finished ahead of Froome twice in 2017, the last two times they’ve raced head to head against the clock.

Roglic took 0.77 seconds per kilometre on Froome over 31km at the 2017 world time trial championship in Bergen, won by Dumoulin, and 2.5 seconds/kilometre over 18km at the 2017 Tour de Romandie, in Lausanne, won by Roglic.

Combined, in 2017 Roglic took 70 seconds over Froome across 49km, for an average of 1.43 seconds per kilometre. Extrapolated over Saturday’s 31km time trial, Roglic could well take 44 seconds from Froome, bumping the Tour champion off the podium unless Froome adds to his current 16-second lead.

“[Thomas] has got an almost two-minute lead on Dumoulin, which is a pretty comfortable buffer,” Froome said. “We just need to look after him for these next few days. That’s professional cycling, that’s what a team is all about. I’m happy just to be in the position I’m in. I’ll still fight for the podium and obviously we want to see ‘G’ up there in yellow.”

Meanwhile, given his distance to Thomas and Froome on GC, and his historical performance racing against them both in time trials, Dumoulin is poised to finish second overall, just as he did behind Froome at the Giro d’Italia in May. Though he may take up to one minute from Thomas across the 31km Stage 20 time trial, it won’t be anywhere near enough for him to win this Tour.

In fact, Thomas’ winning margin after the time trial may just end up to be large enough that Dumoulin won’t look back with angst upon his 53-second time loss, and 20-second penalty, on Stage 6 due to a mechanical.

“Taking time back was a good thing of course, but that’s all that I had,” Dumoulin said. “Thomas was stronger than I was and I have to deal with that. I saw Froome was in difficulty but I didn’t know if it was a bluff, so I waited a bit with my attack. I went and I tried but I didn’t have the legs to drop Thomas and Roglic. I’m focused on myself and I will always keep a bit of faith and hope. But so far Thomas has proven the strongest.”

Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo) went on the attack in the final kilometres of the Col du Portet on Stage 17, putting defending champion Chris Froome (Team Sky) into difficulty.

Four stages remain: Thursday’s flat stage into Pau; Friday’s trek across the Pyrenees, which ascends and descends the Col d’Aspin, Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque; Saturday’s undulating 31km time trial; and Sunday’s ceremonial ride into Paris. If anything significant is to impact the GC, it’s most likely to happen on the either the Aubisque or during the time trial.

Roglic, of course, is the wildcard. He’ll want to take more time on Froome, and he is supported by a very strong Steven Kruijswijk, who sits sixth overall, 3:57 down, but a failed attack could see the Slovenian risk losing the opportunity that awaits him on Saturday.

“I wanted to gain time on my main rivals, but unfortunately, I only succeeded to do so on Froome,” Roglic said. “There are still two decisive stages to come, another mountain stage and a time trial, so anything can happen. It’s now a matter of keeping my focus and continuing to fight until Paris.”

And while anything can happen, when Thomas rolls down the start ramp for the Stage 20 time trial in Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle, he will almost certainly be wearing yellow, riding to secure a Tour de France victory. Any questions about team leadership will have long since been answered.

CyclingTips editor Neal Rogers is writing a daily column during the 2018 Tour de France, focused on analysis, commentary, and opinion.

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