Geraint Thomas is poised to win the Tour de France for the first time following the race’s 17th stage on Wednesday, the second in the Pyrénees.
What is also now resolved, barring any misfortune that could jeopardise the Welshman’s very real dream of victory, is the issue over whether Thomas or defending champion Chris Froome is Sky’s team leader.
Heir apparent: Chris Froome (right) was unable to keep up with teammate and race leader Geraint Thomas.
Thomas, 33, showed to be as strong as he ever has been in this year’s Tour on Wednesday’s stage, a high octane blast over a short but mountainous 65km route from Bagnères-de-Luchon to the summit finish on the Col de Portet overlooking Saint-Lary-Soulan.
For Froome, however, a four-time Tour winner who also claimed last year’s Vuelta a España and the Giro d’Italia in May, his day on such a fast attacking stage exposed the likelihood that his efforts had caught up with him. The Briton lost time to Thomas and fell from second to third overall.
Asked if the outcome means Sky is now all riding for him, Thomas said: “I guess so. I think we’re in a great position. It’s unfortunate ‘Froomey’ lost time, but he’s still up there on the podium. But yeah, I’m in a great position. Just have to keep doing what we’re doing.”
The stage was won by Colombian Nairo Quintana (Movistar), one of the pre-race overall favourites who lost too much time early on to win overall.
But he unleashed a stunning ride that after 2hrs 21m 27s gave him victory by 28s from Irishman Dan Martin (Team UAE-Emirates) and 47s ahead of third-placed Thomas.
It’s unfortunate ‘Froomey’ lost time … but yeah, I’m in a great position.
Thomas had attacked his group of rivals near the finish to cross five seconds clear of rising Slovenian star Primož Roglič (Lotto-Jumbo), in fourth, and Dutchman Tom Dumoulin (Team Sunweb) in fifth.
Quintana’s win lifted him from eighth overall at 4m 23s, to fifth at 3m 30s to Thomas, whose lead on a reshuffled top order rose as a result of Froome’s eighth-place finish at 1m 35s to Quintana.
Thomas’ third place on the stage – that also secured a four second time bonus – left his overall lead at 1m 59s on Dumoulin, who rose from third to second, and 2m 31s on Froome.
With three mountains in 65km, Wednesday lived up to expectations, with attacks bolting away from the start line that for the first time in a Tour had the first 20 riders overall line up in an F1 style grid.
Convoy: Chris Froome, right, and Geraint Thomas, wearing the overall leader’s yellow jersey, climb Col du Portet pass.
However, every attacker was reeled in by the diminishing group of overall contenders as the race went over the Montée de Peyragudes and Col de Val Louron-Azet. The last daring escapee brought back was Estonian Tanel Kangert (Astana), passed by Quintana with 8.4km to go on the 16km long climb of the Col de Portet to the finish line.
As Quintana settled into his stage-winning groove, a flurry of attacks from Thomas’ group were unleashed, several from Roglič. Froome was able to cover Roglič’s first move, but the effort took its toll.
Froome’s demise then prompted Dumoulin to launch an attack. It was a move in which Dumoulin then encouraged Roglič to contribute after Roglič and Thomas followed him, but without Froome in tow.
Thomas, whose performance was also a reflection of the mighty work of his teammates – Dutchman Wout Poels and Colombian Egan Bernal – took no pleasure from Froome suffering. But it did boost his confidence for the finale.
“Obviously, I didn’t want him to have a bad day, like he did,” Thomas said of his teammate. “(But) it just gave me confidence, that someone of his stature was struggling. I was able to follow Roglič and Dumoulin.
“I felt in the last 200m, ‘just go for the bonus seconds’. There was still third place up for grabs and I had a little gap … so nice bonus.”
Thomas looks well placed to defend his overall race leader’s yellow jersey in the Tour’s last day in the mountains on Friday, the 200.5km 19th stage from Lourdes to Laruns in the Pyrénees.
Asked what advice he would give Thomas, Froome replied laughing: “I don’t think he needs any. I think he’s doing just fine.”
With Thursday’s 170km 18th stage from Trie-sur-Baïse to Pau for the sprinters, Thomas’ next danger day after Friday is Saturday’s 31km stage 20 time-trial from Saint-Pée-sur-Nivelle to Espelette.
Dumoulin is the world time trial champion and could gain plenty of time there. Hence Thomas may need to gain more time on him on Friday to secure a comfortable buffer going into Saturday’s ‘race of truth’ and ensure his ride to Paris on Sunday’s finish is as the Tour winner.
Thursday: Stage 18 – Trie-Sur-Baïse to Pau, 171km
Two fourth category climbs, but the stage is a prime opportunity for the remaining sprinters to try their chance, as the overall contenders will be preparing for the final stage in the Pyrenees on Friday.
Friday: Stage 19 – Lourdes to Laruns, 200.5km
The final mountain stage of the Tour with six categorised climbs. They include the iconic Col d’Aspin (12km at 7.3 per cent gradient), Col du Tourmalet (17.1km at 7.3 per cent) and Col d’Aubisque (16.6km at 4.9 per cent), the last of which is followed by a 20km descent to the finish. Whether its an overall contender or stage-winning opportunist, it is a day that will surely entertain to the end.
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