Today at the Tour: The question of Geraint Thomas

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If Team Sky thought it would face scrutiny at this Tour de France due to Chris Froome’s salbutamol case, the British squad has doubled up with Geraint Thomas wearing the maillot jaune after 13 stages, leading Froome by 1:39.

In terms of PR, a team that has won five of the past six Tours, and the past three consecutive Grand Tours — all while defending itself over questions around ethics and transparency — hasn’t helped its impenetrable image by leading the race with a former track world champion and classics specialist, all while also parked in second overall with the defending champion.

As Thomas won atop Alpe d’Huez Thursday and received his second yellow jersey of this Tour, he seemed surprised to find himself booed by spectators. But should he have been surprised? And do fans have a right to question his performances at this race?

Thomas is riding on a level never seen before for the Welshman — that’s a fact, not an opinion. Yes, he has won weeklong stage races in the past. Yes, he wore yellow last year, after winning the opening time trial in Dusseldorf. But he has never led a Grand Tour after two weeks of racing. He had never won a summit finish at a Grand Tour, let alone two in two days, dropping marquee climbers such as Nairo Quintana, Mikel Landa, and Dan Martin.

Thomas’ first words after winning on l’Alpe d’Huez spoke volumes: “It’s insane. There was not a chance I would win today…. This is just unbelievable. I couldn’t see this happening.”

During the opening week, it was simple enough to understand Thomas’ GC position. He contributed to, and benefitted from, Team Sky’s Stage 3 TTT performance. He held his own on the Mur de Bretagne on Stage 6, ceding no GC time. He snatched up a few bonus seconds on the road along the way. He made it through the Stage 9 cobblestones unscathed and on equal time with the main GC group. His trajectory up the classification was similar to Greg Van Avermaet’s, a classics specialist, who wore yellow for eight days.

Race leader Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) rode through flare smoke on l’Alpe d’Huez on Stage 12 of the 2018 Tour de France.

When Van Avermaet finally faltered, on Stage 11 to La Rosière, Thomas not only moved into yellow, he won the stage with a stinging late attack. As teammate Michal Kwiatkowski swung off, rather than setting a hard tempo, Thomas jumped clear in pursuit of both the stage win and yellow jersey, all while allowing Froome a free ride to the finish. Thomas won, 20 seconds ahead of Tom Dumoulin and Froome; he also padded his lead with a 10-second time bonus. At the time, he said his Tour was made, and reiterated that Froome was the team leader.

Twenty-four hours later, on l’Alpe d’Huez, Thomas held his own behind teammate Egan Bernal, one of the most talented pure climbers in professional cycling at age 21, as riders like Martin, Quintana, and Landa lost contact. In the finale, from a group of five riders, Thomas easily won the sprint and took his second summit finish, and 10-second time bonus, in two days. Again, he said that Froome was the team leader, though he’d clearly been stronger on the day.

While Thomas, like Van Avermaet, has a cobblestone classics pedigree, he has transformed himself into much more. He made a point of skipping the Giro d’Italia this year, which Froome targeted, to focus on the Tour — with the possibility that Froome could be excluded. He’s expressed interest in leading the team at the Vuelta a España next month. And at the moment, he’s leading the Tour de France.

THE TRANSFORMATION OF GERAINT THOMAS

Thomas spent the first three years of his pro career with Barloworld, a British team with a South African sponsor, beginning in 2007. He made his Tour debut that year, at age 21, where he finished 139th — second from last. He and Froome were Barloworld teammates for two years, in 2008 and 2009, before both men joined Team Sky for its launch in 2010.

At his second Tour de France, in 2010, Thomas finished 67th; the following year, he finished 30th. His progression was steady; he was bettering his GC finishes by half, year over year.

All the while, Thomas was a golden child of British Cycling, a member of the successful team pursuit squad at the 2008 Olympic Games alongside Bradley Wiggins, Ed Clancy, and Paul Manning.

A 22-year-old Geraint Thomas, riding for Barloworld in 2008.

A powerful rider, Thomas demonstrated his skill at the cobbled classics early in his career, finishing second at the 2011 Dwars door Vlaanderen. A podium finish at the 2014 E3 Harelbeke was followed by a solo victory in 2015, the same year he reached the podium at a weather-marred Gent-Wevelgem where he was famously photographed trying, unsuccessfully, to keep his bike upright on a grassy slope.

Personally, I’ve always admired Thomas — both his toughness and his talent. My first impressions of him were as a 24-year old, British national road champion, finishing second on the cobblestone stage at the 2010 Tour, behind Thor Hushovd, to take the white jersey. I took note when he sacrificed riding in support of Bradley Wiggins at the 2012 Tour to focus on taking another team pursuit Olympic gold medal in front of friends and family in London.

Even before Wiggins stepped aside in 2014, Froome was anointed Team Sky’s Tour leader, with Thomas slotting into a super-domestique role. I recall Thomas breaking his pelvis on the opening stage of the 2013 Tour, and riding all the way to Paris in support of Froome’s first Tour victory. A classics man gritting his way through the Tour in support of the maillot jaune; tough as nails.

I remember watching with interest as Thomas was given free rein at the 2014 Tour, after Froome abandoned early and Richie Porte wilted in the heat on Chamrousse. Across the cobbles, over the mountains, in the heat and in the rain, Thomas was always at the front. He finished that Tour in 22nd overall.

At the 2010 Tour de France, a 24-year-old Geraint Thomas (Team Sky) finished second on Stage 3 across the cobblestones, behind Thor Hushovd (Cervelo Test Team).

The transformation into a legitimate WorldTour stage racer began in 2015, when Thomas reportedly lost eight kilograms (18 pounds), won the overall at the Volta ao Algarve, and placed fifth at Paris-Nice before winning Harelbeke. That was the year of Froome’s second Tour victory; Thomas finished 15th in Paris after spending three weeks as a domestique.

That 2015 Tour was perhaps the best window into Thomas’ Grand Tour potential — he sat fourth overall after 18 stages before losing 22 minutes on Stage 19 to  La Toussuire when he was dropped on Col de la Croix de Fer.

“I was just empty,” Thomas said at the time. “It was always going to happen, I guess.”

THE SINS OF THE SPORT

Since that 2015 season, Thomas has avoided the Belgian semi-classics, focusing only on Monuments like Flanders and Roubaix. In 2016, he won Algarve, again, and then won Paris-Nice; his intentions were clear when skipped Paris-Roubaix in order to attend a team training camp in Tenerife. At the 2016 Tour, he equalled his best GC position, 15th, matching his highest result in a Grand Tour.

When a UCI document leaked in 2011 ranking Tour de France starters on an “index of suspicion” ranging from zero (low probability) through 10 (high probability), Thomas was ranked a six — noteworthy, perhaps, but far from concrete evidence of wrongdoing. His stance against doping has been more outspoken than most in the pro peloton, though perhaps inconsistent.

In 2012, asked about the ongoing USADA investigation into Lance Armstrong, Thomas told BBC Wales that he hoped Armstrong hadn’t done anything wrong, and that he hoped people could “let it go.”

“It’s bad for the whole sport really,” Thomas said. “The main thing is the sport is getting dragged though the mud again and it definitely has a dodgy past. Back in the day it wasn’t a very good sport on that front, but in the last decade or so it has improved massively and I think it is moving in the right direction. But [Armstrong] is such an iconic figure in cycling that whenever he gets dragged through the mud the whole of the sport does. He has had numerous allegations thrown at him through the years, but hopefully he hasn’t done anything wrong. Hopefully people can let it go.”

We all know how that worked out.

I vividly recall Thomas’ reaction to the news that Danilo Di Luca had tested positive for EPO at the 2013 Giro d’Italia, posting on Twitter, “Di Luca what a complete dickhead! From this day forth, lifetime bans for EPO and blood dopers! Get them out and keep them out!” I remember thinking this is what I would expect to hear from a clean rider, or at least how I thought I would respond if I were a clean rider, and that Thomas was one of very few riders to voice his disgust.

In December 2017, Thomas called for a blanket ban on TUEs, telling Cyclingnews, “I have a strong stance on anti-doping. So I’d get rid of TUEs and I’d ban people for life for blood doping and EPO. Why give them a second chance? This life is a luxury, and I feel I’m in a privileged position, so if someone goes out of their way to break the rules, then they’re just not needed.”

Last month, Thomas took the overall win at the Criterium du Dauphine, his most prestigious stage-race victory to date. As with this Tour, he benefitted from a strong team time trial performance, finishing one minute ahead of Adam Yates; Team Sky won the TTT, finishing 56 seconds ahead of Yates’ Mitchelton-Scott squad. Thomas was declared co-leader for the Tour de France, though after Froome was exonerated, that title seemed to evolve to “backup leader.”

As mentioned, I’ve long admired Thomas. His talent has never been in question. But like Wiggins, he was viewed as a powerful track rider who had successfully made the switch to the road — not as a future Grand Tour contender. I never expected to see Geraint Thomas dropping Quintana or Landa on Alpe d’Huez. And while he’s had a steady, if unconventional, progression over his career, it’s also fair to say that Thomas, at age 32, has recently made the jump to another level. What we’re seeing now is beyond anything we’ve seen from him before.

For a bit of context, here is a list of the last eight winners of the cobblestone classic E3 Harelbeke: Niki Terpstra, Greg Van Avermaet, Michal Kwiatkowski, Geraint Thomas, Peter Sagan, Fabian Cancellara, Tom Boonen, Filippo Pozzato. How many of these riders ever contended for a Grand Tour victory? How many ever won a mountain stage at a Grand Tour, let alone two in two days? Only Thomas. How many of those riders ever attempted to ride for general classification? Thomas, and Kwiatkowski, who has won races such as Tirreno-Adriatico and Volta ao Algarve.

Geraint Thomas (Team Sky), en route to winning the 2015 E3 Harelbeke ahead of Peter Sagan (Tinkoff-Saxo) and Zdenek Stybar (Etixx-Quick Step).

Outside of Thomas’ current form, which appears to be the best of his life, there are explanations on his climbing better than riders with superior Grand Tour results; both Landa and Martin are dealing with injuries after heavy crashes. Both Froome and Dumoulin raced a demanding Giro d’Italia, finishing first and second. And of course Thomas’s GC position has benefitted from the fact that Porte, Vincenzo Nibali, and Rigoberto Uran have all been forced to abandon with injury.

However, some explanations are less clear. On Alpe d’Huez, Thomas finished 47 seconds ahead of Quintana, a pure climber who has won two Grand Tours and stood on four other Grand Tour podiums. Thomas also took time from Bardet, a pure climber who finished second to Froome in 2016 and third last year. Neither of them rode the Giro in May, and neither has hit the deck at this Tour.

In Wiggins, Froome, and now Thomas, Team Sky appears to have now transformed three riders, who did not show early potential as Grand Tour contenders, into world beaters, all at a relatively late age. There was always a possibility that Froome might not have been able to compete at this Tour, and what we’re seeing is that Team Sky has produced another potential winner. And while that may come across as innuendo, it’s also a fact. Plan B is, for the moment, leading the Tour de France into the final week.

Consider the fact that the team carries the biggest budget in the sport, allowing it to field an all-star roster of super domestiques — and then factor in jiffy bags and missing medical records and shady former team doctors and the UCI’s opaque explanation about Froome’s salbutamol case — and it becomes clear why there are jeers during podium ceremonies.

Thomas may be paying the price for others’ sins, but given the events of the past 20 years, pro cycling no longer deserves the benefit of the doubt — and neither does Team Sky.

INSIDE TEAM SKY

And so here we are. Geraint Thomas leads the defending Tour de France champion — the best Grand Tour rider of his generation — who happens to wear the same jersey, by 1:39, with eight stages remaining. Four days in the Pyrenees and a 31km time trial remain, and Thomas has not yet shown any sign of weakness.

It’s unlikely Froome will attack the maillot jaune within his own team, so it’s going to come down to either Thomas tiring out — which may happen if he rides for Froome, as he did briefly on l’Alpe d’Huez — or the Stage 20 time trial.

On l’Alpe d’Huez, Froome did not attack Thomas, and Thomas did not attack Froome. When Bernal swung off with 5km remaining, Thomas went to the front and took over pacemaking to bring back Steven Kruiswijk; admittedly an unusual sight to see the yellow jersey riding for a teammate near a summit finish. Conversely, the only times Froome went up the road were to chase down Bardet, which allowed Thomas to sit on Dumoulin as the Dutchman chased Froome. In terms of loyalty, both riders played it straight. In the end, Froome faded and Thomas took the win plus time bonus; his 1:39 margin over Froome is creeping closer towards insurmountable. It’s not there yet, but it’s not far off.

Froome may never attack Thomas in yellow, but he will allow Thomas to be the last Sky rider left to set pace on climbs. Froome will be free to follow attacks from riders like Dumoulin, Roglic, and Bardet, and we’ll find out if Thomas wears down that way.

Are we witnessing a replay of the intra-squad drama between Wiggins and Froome at the 2012 Tour? On the surface, it doesn’t appear so — not yet. One critical difference is that the two men are close friends, and have been teammates for a decade. Another is that Froome never led Wiggins in 2012. Still, it’s fair to say that Thomas isn’t just going to roll over and let Froome have the victory.

Wiggins has his own take. Earlier this week, he told Eurosport that he expected Team Sky manager Dave Brailsford to pit the riders against one another.

“Does Dave B come in and do his usual and be quite divisive and get in each other’s ear and kind of keep them both motivated for the same goal and there be a natural selection?” Wiggins said. “Dave will be telling them they can both win it, as a way of motivating them, as a way of playing these cards deep in to the race. He’s quite self-serving. For him it’s about the team winning, it’s not about the individuals or the characters. He will always be in those riders’ ears constantly, and he has been, up till now as you can see.”

Team Sky teammates Chris Froome and Geraint Thomas, prior to Stage 12 of the 2018 Tour de France, from Bourg-Saint-Maurice Les Arcs to Alpe d’Huez.

Atop l’Alpe d’Huez, Froome praised Thomas. “He’s ridden the race of his life so far at this Tour. It’s been faultless, and he fully deserves to be in yellow, having won two stages and the most iconic stage of the race,” Froome said. “I think it’s a dream position for us to be in, first and second on GC. It allows us to play both our cards.

“[At La Rosière] G went up the road and left other riders scrambling to try and chase. Today I went up the road and G sat on Dumoulin, which worked out really well in the final. It meant G had a good punch at the finish. It’s just a dream scenario for us right now. I definitely feel as if I’m building into this race. It was always a bit of an unknown after the Giro, but I’m really happy with the first sensations and looking forward to the Pyrenees next week.”

Thomas stuck to a similar party line: “I said yesterday this race was [already] made for me, and after today, that’s it, I can be happy now. Maybe I’ll keep the jersey for the next few days, but this race is so hard, you never know how the body reacts. I’m still riding for Froomey, he’s still our man. He knows how to ride for three weeks. He’s probably the best ever. I’m just going to enjoy this.”

But it’s entirely possible that Thomas could roll down the start ramp for the Stage 20 time trial in  Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle wearing yellow. If that’s the case, the advantage may still be Froome’s, but just barely. Froome is one of the best in the sport against the clock, but Thomas is not far off. At the 2016 Tour, Thomas finished seventh in the 37.5km Stage 13 time trial, 57 seconds behind Froome. Last year, he won the opening 14km time trial in Düsseldorf  and held the maillot jaune for four days.

Froome may be able to take a minute back from Thomas in the time trial — two seconds per kilometer over 31km —  but not much more, and it’s far from certain.

On Friday, Team Sky director Nicolas Portal told French TV that the team will continue protecting both riders until the road makes a determination.

“The idea is for the team to win,” Portal said. “We have two cards and we’ll play them at 100%, but the Tour isn’t won yet. We don’t know for how long G [Thomas] will hold on to the lead but it’s also unknown how Chris will deal with the fatigue of the Giro. He rode the Tour and Vuelta last year, but the Giro-Tour double is harder. The team will support the two of them. We’re in great shape, and we’ve been working closely together since 2010. It’s up to our rivals to put us in trouble now.”

It’s worth remembering that Thomas has never finished top 10 at a Grand Tour, though he’s almost always ridden in support of Froome or Wiggins. The Welshman is still unproven over three weeks in a leadership role. There is a big difference between being the strongest rider after 13 stages and the strongest rider after 21 stages — just ask Simon Yates, who led the recent Giro d’Italia after 18 stages and ended up 21st overall.

Still, with a strong team behind him, and a proven track record in time trials, it’s looking very likely that Thomas will be standing on the podium in Paris; the only question is which step he’ll be on.

Well, that plus all the questions that will follow.


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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