‘Le règne sans fin’ – the unending reign – was the headline on the front page of L’Equipe on Sunday morning, beneath a picture of Chris Froome embracing the champion, Geraint Thomas. The Tour de France may have a new winner, but for some he is cut from the same stained cloth as the last one.
It is now six wins in seven Tours for Team Sky, four grand tour victories in a row, and there is a growing fear that they might never lose a three-week race again, slowly disbanding the idea of competition in favour of 21 days sipping champagne on an elaborate vineyard tour. They are the richest team with the strongest riders and the shrewdest management, the giant at the front of the peloton, and one that is still evolving.
The end for the 33-year-old Froome may not be far away, while Thomas is 32, but Dave Brailsford believes he has already discovered their long-term successor in the brilliantly talented 21-year-old Egan Bernal. The Colombian was the youngest rider in the peloton, making his debut and climbing some iconic mountains for the very first time, and he led the peloton through the steepest slopes of the Alps and the Pyrénées like a local guide shepherding another batch of obedient tourists.
He finished the Tour 15th almost by accident, riding with no regard for himself and only for Thomas and Froome, even waiting on Alpe d’Huez when the four-time champion was struggling. He is small and slight, but unlike his compatriot Nairo Quintana he has shown he is more than only a climber, finishing 25th on Saturday’s stage 20 individual time trial out of 145 riders.
An article in Le Parisien this weekend compared the Tour de France to an episode of Columbo, “where the killer was known from the first minutes. In this edition, the killer was English,” the paper wrote, perhaps not aware that Thomas is Welsh. It has been a theme throughout the Tour: that Sky are suffocating the peloton, and that no one wants to watch its slow death.
The writer suggested a list of measures to tackle the problem. Cap wages, because Team Sky are like Paris Saint-Germain; unplug earpieces, because they undermine the advantage of instinctive riders like Philippe Gilbert and favour meticulous planners like Sky; invent new routes, because the team time trial played into Sky's hands. They are desperate measures for what is becoming a desperate cause.
“Personally, I compare Team Sky to Real Madrid,” says French journalist Frederic Retsin, who has covered the Tour for more than 20 years. “I’m bored to watch Real Madrid win the Champions League three times in a row. Every stage is on TV live, all the stage. What is the interest? It’s boring.”
Added to the boredom is a mistrust of Sky, a faith long since broken; L’Equipe said the doubters are about as likely to be brought round as Donald Trump is to be convinced on climate change theory. In Thomas perhaps there is an element of reassurance – he insists he has never even applied for a TUE, or taken asthma medication, and vows his win will stand the test of time. He is a more popular figure than Froome, but even he has been booed and attacked along the route, tainted by association.
Cycling is not about to dethrone them any time soon. Both Froome and Thomas ended the race reiterating their desire to win more grand tours, and they have the best young talent in the peloton. Right now there seems no team or rider ready to usurp them. Sky’s is a reign which has no end in sight.
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