Over the years it’s been shown that there’s more than one way to win a grand tour. Master climbers blow the rest away in the mountains, like the great Fausto Coppi who surged up Alpe d’Huez in 1952 and won the Tour by 28 minutes. Time trial specialists mark rivals on the climbs and hurt them on the clock, like the giant Miguel Indurain who obliterated the field that way in 1992, and again in 1994. Occasionally a rider bullies from start to finish, like the intimidating Bernard Hinault who crushed opponents at every opportunity en route to the Champs-Élysées in 1981.
Geraint Thomas – who now joins the fabled list of Tour de France winners – did it with unabating pressure. He snatched every available second, each a small but significant psychological blow, never taking his foot off the throttle. He took time from his closest rival Tom Dumoulin on seven separate stages, and that gradual accumulation of wealth also helped him to seamlessly usurp Chris Froome as Team Sky’s de facto leader, not by bloody coup but instead by a gentle undermining of power.
The end result was so effective that you wondered whether a team as meticulous as Sky might have planned it all along. Was Froome the Trojan Horse from which the unassuming Thomas sprang? Perhaps that’s reading a little too deeply into what can be such a chaotic and unpredictable sport, but there is no doubt Dave Brailsford and his management team thought the Welsh rider could win this Tour from the beginning.
His victory will go down as a surprise to many, but there were plenty of signs. He showed pedigree in recent Tours, challenging in the top 10 and wearing yellow during last year’s race, and in June he won the Dauphiné, always a strong indicator of who will challenge in July. He has had the best team at his disposal, of course, a team with strength in depth who have controlled much of the race, but to count that against him would be to ignore his success in those shootouts with Dumoulin and Primoz Roglic on the steepest mountains when the domestiques had wilted.
Asked to reflect on whether he had been beaten by Team Sky’s riches, Dumoulin was clear. “Of course having more money to spend makes life easier, but in this tour it didn’t really make a difference. We couldn’t control the race like Sky, but they had the strongest guy in the bunch. It’s too easy to say that Geraint Thomas had a big advantage with his team. He was the absolute strongest rider over the last three weeks.”
It wasn’t just that Thomas was strong in the legs. He picked his moves intelligently, earning more than half a minute in bonuses over three weeks compared to Dumoulin’s 12 seconds and Froome’s four. And in those clutch moments when they climbed high into the clouds he not only absorbed assaults from Dumoulin, Roglic and the rest but found the strength to retaliate, beating them to the top of the brutal Col du Portet and winning back-to-back stages on La Rosière and the iconic Alpe d’Huez.
“Alpe d’Huez was probably the most I suffered,” Thomas said. “To win there in the yellow jersey was just insane. I didn’t expect it. That day was just about following the guys in front. That will always stay with me, it was incredible.”
The win on the Alpe was stylish, capped by the image of Thomas throwing his head back and roaring into the sky, the photo he’ll probably have framed at the top of the stairs. But his third-place on the Portet was even grittier and more definitive, the moment any lingering notion of Thomas as a rider who cannot stand three hard weeks on the front line of a grand tour was extinguished.
There, on one of the hardest climbs you could possibly dream up, Froome cracked and suddenly Thomas was exposed, both in the sense that he was now without question the team’s leader and that he was out on the mountain without his Sky brigade. He coped brilliantly, shaking off furious attacks of Dumoulin and Roglic before escaping at the finish to extend his lead.
Along the way he has also had to deal with animosity on the roads and rostrums, as well as a heightened media schedule in the yellow jersey which probed away at his internal leadership struggle with Froome, and his relaxed temperament was almost as impressive as his performance on the bike.
He diffused the press tent of any tension on the second rest day under a barrage of questions about his relationship with Froome when he joked: “We get on – for now, anyway.” When asked whether he wanted to win the Tour in the second week he began: “I could give you some PR bullshit but I’m not going to”, and after his brilliant performance on stage 19 he gave a self-deprecating nod to his history of untimely crashes, saying “anything can happen in cycling – especially with me”.
Fairly or not, this amiable nature is part of why his victory has been welcomed far more warmly than Froome’s fifth title would have been, both in France and beyond. Froome is more heavily weighed down by baggage, but there is also the inescapable perception that while Froome is a ruthless cyclist, Thomas is a nice bloke who rides a bike, and that has ultimately helped him come through three intense weeks.
Thomas’s nod to his own run of bad luck was qualified by an insistence that he has worked “super hard” for this triumph, meticulously preparing his season to peak in the Alps and the Pyrénées, where this Tour was ultimately won. “I’m glad it’s finally paid off,” he said with a sense of palpable relief. It really has, culminating in his relentless pursuit of the yellow jersey, and on the ride to the Champs-Élysées he finally took his foot off the throttle.
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