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Wearing the yellow jersey, Geraint Thomas took a huge step toward wrapping up the overall victory at the Tour de France Wednesday. The Welshman didn’t just survive on the short, brutal stage 17, he thrived.
Some expected things to go downhill for Thomas Wednesday over three tough climbs in just 65 kilometers of racing. His Team Sky leader Chris Froome was proven in three-week races. Thomas was not. But when Thomas reached the last five kilometers of the final hors categorie climb to the finish on Col du Portet, he could tell things were falling his way.
“Froomey said on the radio 5k to go he wasn’t feeling super. That gave me confidence because if Froomey is suffering, then everyone is suffering, and I was feeling good,” Thomas said.
Most of the hardest mountains of this Tour are now in the rearview mirror. Only one mountain stage and one time trial stand between Thomas and the top step of the final podium. He’s not ready to dream of Paris yet though.
“I think I’m in a good position now, but I’m not going to change my mental approach,” he said atop the Col du Portet climb. “As soon as you get carried away, it goes downhill.”
There’s little reason to doubt Thomas at this point. While his teammate Chris Froome suffered and dropped off the back of the GC group, Thomas stayed with rivals like Tom Dumoulin (Sunweb) and Primoz Roglic (LottoNL-Jumbo).
In the final few hundred meters, he even jumped clear and snatched some time on his main rivals — and bonus seconds too — with a third-place finish behind stage winner Nairo Quintana (Movistar) and Dan Martin (UAE Team Emirates).
Froome, meanwhile, came home 48 seconds down on his teammate. That saw him drop from second to third overall, behind Thomas and Dumoulin.
For the first time in this year’s race, Sky comes away from the stage with clarity on the question that journalists and fans have been asking: Who is the top dog at Sky this Tour? On Wednesday, Thomas was clearly the stronger rider.
This isn’t the first time Sky has ridden through most of the three-week stretch with two riders capable of winning a yellow jersey. But as Thomas pointed out, the Froome-Thomas dynamic in 2018 is much less acrimonious than the tension between Froome and Bradley Wiggins back in 2012. Wiggins won the Tour that year despite Froome appearing to be the stronger ride at multiple points during the race. Froome went on to win four Tours, a Giro d’Italia, and a Vuelta a España, while Wiggins would never stand atop another grand tour podium.
Thomas credits good communication for the smooth relations.
“We’ve just been open and honest with each other from the start,” Thomas said. “Maybe it’s hard to believe sometimes after the situation with him and Brad. But we generally are good mates, and we’re honest and open and I think that is the main reason for success for the team.”
The communication also helped in the closing kilometers of stage 17.
“[That] shows that we’re in an alliance with each other and we’re open and communicating,” Thomas added about the stage finale. “There’s no way I’d attack if Froomey says he’s feeling bad over the radio.”
That improved dynamic has proven fruitful for Sky. In giving Thomas a free role, the team positioned itself to win yet another Tour de France even with the defending champ not quite at his best. Had Thomas been sent back to help Froome chase in the very first stage of the race, and had he simply ridden tempo in stages 11 and 12 instead of powering to stage victories, Sky’s path to winning a fifth straight Tour would be much less clear.
Instead, with only one high mountain day left in the race before the individual time trial in stage 20, Thomas’s advantage over Dumoulin stands at 1:59. As strong as Dumoulin is against the clock, he’ll have a hard time picking up that much time on Thomas, who is an excellent TT rider in his own right.
In other words, if Thomas can make it through the tough climbs and tricky descents that await in stage 19 — the Tour’s last day in the Pyrenees — he should have yellow in the bag. That’s no gimme, with both the Col du Tourmalet and the Col d’Aubisque lying in wait on stage 19, but Thomas has passed every test so far in this Tour.
Thomas has said for years that he sees himself as a potential grand tour contender. That may have seemed like a lofty goal, if not a pipe dream, a few seasons ago.
Now, he’s just a few more good days away from reaching the top step of the podium in the biggest grand tour of them all.
Andrew Hood contributed to this report from Saint-Lary-Soulan, France.