How to compress three weeks into a single moment? The story of Geraint Thomas’s win is a more gradual matter, still if there was a day and moment it was at the ski station of La Rosière were Thomas jumped away, passed earlier escapee Tom Dumoulin, took the stage by 20 seconds, collected the time bonus and put on the yellow jersey.
The chart shows the GC standings of the top-5 over the three weeks. As you can see the others fell away from Thomas quickly, Chris Froome lost 51 seconds on the opening day; Primož Roglič and Steven Kruijswijk suffered in the team time trial and then Tom Dumoulin’s losses add up on Stage 6 at Mûr-de-Bretagne. Dumoulin rode into Romain Bardet just before the crucial finish at Mûr-de-Bretagne, forcing him to stop for a new wheel and chase back, this cost him 53 seconds plus a 20 second time penalty for a blatant draft behind the car. This accounts for two thirds of Dumoulin’s time losses to Thomas, then come 30 seconds in time bonuses taken by Thomas, against 12 for Dumoulin, the net 18 seconds equate to one fifth of the lead to leave just 17 seconds in straight racing of which the 20 second gap between Thomas and Dumoulin at La Rosière was the biggest gap between them. It’s a marked change from recent editions where we’ve seen riders more or less match each other until a time trial stage when suddenly they fall away from Froome. Here the lesson here isn’t one of addition and subtraction, more one of equality between the first two. Thomas looked the strongest and the most assured, he even never had to attack.
Still Thomas’s win has a touch of serendipity, not from the race but the circumstances prior to it. Froome and Sky were tempted into the Giro-Tour double, then Froome’s salbutamol saga meant Thomas was promoted internally in the team. He’d had a quiet start to the season, off the pace on the summit finish stage of Tirreno-Adriatico won by his team mate Michał Kwiatkowski who’d also beaten him in the Volta ao Algarve. He came down from Mount Teide to ride Paris-Roubaix, continuing his interest in the classics and reviving the voices that pipe up every spring to say they wish he’d stick to the classics. The Tour de Romandie was quiet, Sky’s new recruit Egan Bernal outshone him. But things changed in the summer, he won the Dauphiné and with this became a Tour contender and with hindsight his move at La Rosière in June was the template for his triumph a month later that set him up to win the Tour.
Leadership was a story during the month, if only because he’s plastic, a rider moulded into the needs of others. Initially one of the UK lottery winners on the GB track programme, he was placed with the Barloworld team with the idea that a road programme would build him up for the track, he even rode the 2007 Tour de France for the team where since the race started in London they thought it would be good to have a Brit. If being a Brit got him a precocious start in the Tour de France ironically it kept him off the road, he was on the track more than the road and won gold in the Beijing velodrome in 2008 and joined Sky on its inception in 2010. Once again Sky had a grand tour winner on their roster but it took them years to discover it.
Still the mutation to stage racing isn’t recent. 2014 saw him win the Bayern Rundfahrt but it was 2015 that he made the switch, he won E3 Harelbeke but was second overall in the Tour de Suisse (pictured) and was sitting fourth in the Tour de France until the penultimate mountain stage. He was a rider to watch for 2016 here wondering if he’d prove more talented than Chris Froome if he could establish himself as a leader. Things started well with a win in Paris-Nice but the rest of that year didn’t deliver any results. 2017 was better with Tirreno-Adriatico and the Tour of the Alps leading into the Giro only for him to crash out at the foot of the Blockhaus in a crash provoked by a badly-parked police motorbike. Weeks later when sitting second overall he crashed out of the Tour de France on the descent of the Col de la Biche. In short he’d been a stage racer for four years seasons now but perhaps never put his foot down to demand team leadership, there were no declarations about becoming top dog and if he was protected for the 2017 Giro, Mikel Landa had the “1” on his back, he was the Prince Of Wales but never asked to be King.
Thomas is still on the market and can probably name his price but this only means he’s more likely to sign for Team Sky given their quasi-unlimited budget. Whatever the offers cash-rich squads like Bahrain-Merida, UAE-Emirates make, they can pay cash but won’t deliver the depth of support, the same train of riders. Once again we saw aristocrats of the peloton like Lord Kwiatkowski and Viscount Poels playing domestique in July and handsomely paid for this of course. Egan Bernal’s inclusion in the team was surprising at the start but with hindsight it was essential, without him Sky’s train would have come up short on the summit finishes and his efforts to pace Froome back into contention on the Aubisque ensured the team got two riders on the podium.
Go back to the start and Stage 1 saw a crash split the field with the likes of Chris Froome, Richie Porte, Adam Yates and Nairo Quintana losing time, with hindsight all would be on the back foot for the next three weeks. Lawson Craddock fared worse, crashing into a spectator and riding as the lanterne rouge all race long. Fernando Gaviria won the stage, taking the yellow jersey, points jersey, white jersey and Quick Step took the team prize meaning the Belgian team wore every jersey at some point during the race, the only prizes they missed out in July were the Souvenir Henri Desgranges (Nairo Quintana) and the Supercombatif prize (Dan Martin).
Gaviria would take another stage, Peter Sagan won two and so did Dylan Groenwegen in the first week. Peter Sagan quickly donned the green jersey and would win a third in Valence. They’ve changed the points scale in recent years to make the contest closer only he’s again the runaway winner, winning stages, contesting bunch sprints and intermediate sprints, including those on a mountain stage. His charisma and presence must delight Skoda, the green jersey sponsor. Only the Tour gathers all the sprinters for sprint royale and the old kings Marcel Kittel, Mark Cavendish and André Greipel were deposed by the young princes before leaving the race. Arnaud Démare got a stage and Alexander Kristoff collected the rewards for hauling himself around France with victory on the Champs Elysées.
BMC won the team time trial and fears that the overall classification would be set in stone proved excessive with 10 teams within a minute of the stage winners. Dan Martin won at Mûr-de-Bretagne, he jumped and the others hesitated, the story of his race and he helped to spice up many a mountain stage.
Elsewhere we had the usual wildcard breakaways and the inevitable bunch sprints and complaints that the race was boring to watch. There could be ways to enliven the flat stages but the danger is the fiddling brings gimmicks or adds complexity without achieving anything, a bit like the bonus sprint points during the first week.
One way to enliven things is to add cobbles. Tour de France creator Henri Desgrange tried to scare the riders and whip up the public interest, for example if crossing the Tourmalet wasn’t enough in 1910, he spread tales of marauding bears to redouble the fear factor. The stage to Roubaix borrowed a touch of this, justifiable fear even if the GC contenders all stayed together with the exception of Richie Porte who crashed out before meeting a single cobble. John Degenkolb delivered the feel-good win while many others were feeling sore and the stage manage to cast shadow over the Alps as several GC contenders were left nursing bruises, injuries and wounds. It doesn’t take much of an injury to make you sleep bad, it doesn’t take much missed sleep to start feeling sluggish on the bike 10 days into a stage race.
The Alps began with a stage of sumptuous beauty, a lap around the opal waters of Lake Annecy and the traverse of the Plateau des Glières and then the double Romme-Colombière climbs where Julian Alaphilippe won the stage and took the mountains jersey, “the French superhero costume” as L’Equipe put it. Alaphilippe finishes as a convincing and satisfying winner of the mountains jersey, on the attack early in the mountains but also winning a stage in each mountain range.
La Rosière saw Thomas triumph as mentioned above and also saw plenty of GC contenders fall by the wayside. Romain Bardet, Nairo Quintana and Vincenzo Nibali were distanced while Jacob Fuglsang, Adam Yates, Ilnur Zakarin and Bob Jungels had their GC hopes extinguished for a year. Meanwhile Tom Dumoulin might have been caught on the final climb after an audacious breakaway but equally impressive manage to pick up the pace later on and even pipped Froome for the time bonuses.
The stage to Alpe d’Huez ought to be remembered for Steven Kruijswijk, sitting sixth overall, going in the early breakaway and then attacking them all to go solo with 73km to go. If not then for Geraint Thomas coping with attacks from Quintana, Nibali and Bardet before lining himself up for the final corner onto the Avenue Rif Nel so that he came out lengths clear of the others and punching away for the stage win with the yellow jersey. Only the raucous crowd grabbed as many headlines. There were big efforts to contain things, alcohol sales banned on Dutch corner, more ropes, barriers and police than ever and anecdotally fewer crowds. Vincenzo Nibali once quipped that “the mother of imbeciles is always pregnant” meaning that there’s always a supply of fools and we saw several of her sons on the Alpe, someone tried to thump Froome, others setting off flares to waft acrid smoke into the riders and then one person with a loose camera strap downed Nibali. He got up and almost reached the lead riders who’d been marking each other but had fractured a vertebra and quit the race. He’d been dropped the previous day, his attack had fizzled out minutes before so chances are he might not have weighed on the race although he could have been a catalyst for the third week. The race is unlikely to go back for some time.
As well as a few fools the race didn’t always have the joyful, free, family atmosphere of usual. We need to be careful not to latch on examples that over-exaggerate, the Tour remains a popular festival. Still the race started with a PR problem, one day Chris Froome was persona non grata, the next he was exonerated just before the race started and this was a case study in pro cycling’s institutional problems will get a closer look here in the coming days and weeks. Short of interviewing the crowds it’s hard to ascribe accurate motivations for the booing but there must be a combination of boredom with Team Sky winning six of the last seven Tours (and we’ve heard the boos before); the drip of stories about Jiffy bags, the British parliamentary enquiry and more although little of this reached much of the French media. The salbutamol did through and it dragged on for months only to be resolved just before the Tour started. Readers here may debate weighted gravity urine samples and remember past blog posts about the possibility of Ulissi falling foul of the salbutamol test alongside accounts of Sky’s aggressive medicalisation of permitted substances and the age-old stories of TUE arbitrage. Roadside many people heard about a positive test for a strangely-named banned substance during the Vuelta and made up their minds. Simplistic? Perhaps but we’re all guilty of heuristics, including Dave Brailsford whose rest day rantings made life harder for his team this month and quite probably next year too.
Astana took two mid-mountain stages with Omar Fraile and Magnus Cort Nielsen, a good consolation after Jacob Fuglsang’s GC bid never started and he was questioning his own future as GC rider in the heat of the moment. The two wins came after two huge battles to get in the day’s breakaway. We now take for granted the limitless TV coverage but it’s stages like this that make the full coverage worthwhile, add in the good weather – it rained briefly on the stage to Luchon and was damp for the early starters of the Stage 20 TT – and the visual experience was sumptuous.
The Pyrenees saw Julian Alaphilippe take his second stage win. Adam Yates crashed on the final descent and Alaphilippe radioed his team car to ask about waiting but was told in blunt terms to race on. Behind the GC riders marked each other, saving energy for the following day’s 65km dash. The stage wasn’t an attack-fest but it was decisive with Nairo Quintana taking a consolation stage win and Thomas withstanding a flurry of attacks from Dumoulin and Primož Roglič, the Slovene going from dark horse to podium contender. Chris Froome cracked and we got the rare sight of him beaten on a mountain stage and for all his visual discomfort on any summit finish we got the “tell” of his tongue hanging out. The significance of the finish could be long-lasting with the Col du Portet a valuable new resource in the Pyrenees when the race needs a high altitude summit finish. In the moment Quintana got a win and Movistar sealed the team classification which matters to them. They did bring their trident but Valverde was more of a road captain and if they didn’t take the fight to Team Sky they did enliven the race with Valverde going up the road again and again as a relay, Marc Soler was impressive and Mikel Landa was left smarting after crashing on the cobbles.
Nobody else could take on Team Sky. Ag2r La Mondiale tried a couple of times but they lost three riders including Alexis Vuillermoz who was taken out by a spectator like Nibali, unlike Nibali his exit didn’t get much attention but it depleted and already run-down team. They’re left with the white jersey of Pierre Latour, the first time the team has won a jersey competition in Paris but the best young rider prize was hardly a competition. Latour was working for Bardet a lot, just as Egan Bernal was working even more for Froome and Thomas. Guillaume Martin tried to attack Latour but he’d been carrying a broken rib since Roubaix.
The final mountain stage saw several riders launch with 100km to go. As much as we’d like to see this on the first mountain stage it’s not going to happen because the rewards are slim, possibly a stage win and maybe a few seconds but the risks are high, of being caught and dropped. Just ask Steven Kruijswijk about climbing Alpe d’Huez. Still the final stage was full of action and the podium positions were in play all the way to Larun. The final TT was especially technical and Tom Dumoulin won by a second ahead of Chris Froome while Geraint Thomas seemed to back off, either to ensure he made it home safely or to help his team mate win the stage.
A slow start, it took until the second Sunday to break the torpor but from then onwards there was plenty of action and suspense even if the introduction of the pavé brought action for one day at the cost of injuries to many GC contenders. From the Alps onwards there was action and suspense and again look at the list of stage winners and there’s no surprise or fluke winner. Froome’s previous wins were achieved with a knock-out blow such as Ax-3-Domaines or La Pierre Saint Martin and last year he always had the final time trial in Marseille as insurance, this year leadership and resilience were still issue for Thomas late into the race, even after he’d won atop Alpe d’Huez in the yellow jersey. Yet the alternative scenario was typically Froome winning rather than the others, Sky’s mountain train is cycling’s version of football’s catenaccio.
Thomas finishes first and if he’s an unexpected winner the result is indisputable, it’s hard to imagine the scenario where Dumoulin could have beaten him. All this on a very hard route, incomparable to the course almost designed for Bradley Wiggins in 2012. It ends with an intriguing scenario for the future, Thomas’s thoughts at the moment probably revolve around relaxation and recovery and maybe the team call him up for the Vuelta, but what hopes and ambitions will be take into next year? He’s 32 and first-time winners of the Tour in their 30s like Bradley Wiggins, Cadel Evans, Carlos Sastre and Bjarne Riis tend to have only had the one Tour win in them, see Fausto Coppi for the exception. Similarly, once invincible in July, Froome is probably due a long vacation but what for 2019? The same for Tom Dumoulin who only decided to enter the Tour de France late, second in the Giro and then waiting to see how he felt, what can he do with a clear run. Ditto Primož Roglič, he’s collected one week stage races this season and now finishes fourth overall, he only took up cycling in 2012.