Tuesday 21 January 2020

Thomas climbs into leader's jersey but Yellow peril awaits for Sky and Froome


Team Sky rider Geraint Thomas. Photo: Stephane Mahe/Reuters
Team Sky rider Geraint Thomas. Photo: Stephane Mahe/Reuters

Tom Cary

Now things get interesting. An absolutely enthralling day of action at the Tour de France ended - as many had predicted - with Geraint Thomas wearing the yellow jersey of the race leader.

The Welshman, who had been lying second heading into the day, not only overhauled BMC's Greg van Avermaet on the road to La Rosière, he won the short but brutally tough stage in sensational fashion, putting in two devastating accelerations up the final climb to leave the rest of his general classification rivals, including Sky team-mate Chris Froome, in his wake.

Thomas now leads Froome by 1min25secs on GC and will be wearing the most iconic jersey in the sport, up the most iconic climb in the sport, when the Tour heads to Alpe d'Huez today for the race's queen stage.

It was also an impressive day for Daniel Martin with the UAE Team Emirates rider attacking from the group of favourites on the final climb, pulling clear with Froome before finishing the stage in sixth place to jump up to 10th in the GC.

However, it was what Thomas (pictured) said afterwards which makes things so fascinating both for today's stage and beyond.

Asked whether his performance, and his claiming of the yellow jersey, had changed anything with respect to leadership duties at Team Sky, Thomas was unequivocal.

"Obviously Froomey is the leader," he told a packed press conference in a makeshift press tent at the bottom of a ski slope. "He's won six Grand Tours. For me it's an unknown, it's more just trying to get through the stage, stay in the position we were in at least and not lose time on GC."

Thomas is a straightforward bloke. He has been a loyal domestique for years, both for Bradley Wiggins and now Chris Froome. He has buried himself whenever required. Which is why so many will find the sentiment he expressed difficult to accept. Why can't Froome ride for him? Why not back the yellow jersey wearer?

Thomas shrugged. "It's just how I feel. Some guys might sit here and give some PR bulls*** but I just say how it is with me and that's how it is. Froomey is the leader. For sure I'm not going to sit up and lose time, but I think we're in a great position."

The truth is, while the pot is now bubbling nicely, it is still very early in the race. We have only had two mountain stages so far and there are some absolute monsters to come, starting with today's stage to Alpe d'Huez where Team Sky may need to brace themselves for a hostile reception. Sky need both Froome and Thomas to stay as high up on GC as they can. They are not going to be in a hurry to sacrifice Thomas.

Nevertheless, these seemingly small details - who works for whom - can make a big difference in the final equation.

Thomas's admission that he would "pull [for Froome] towards the end" of today's stage up Alpe d'Huez if that was what the team wanted him to do, was a big statement. "It depends on the situation," he added. "We'll see."

We will indeed. If the yellow jersey is required to work for Froome today, not only would it be a big symbolic gesture, it would mean Thomas burns off his reserves faster than his team-mate.

Much has been made of the fact that Thomas fell away in the final few stages of 2015, when he had been well up on GC. But he rode hard for Froome at that Tour. Who knows what he might have been capable of had he been protected.

These are the sorts of issues to which Wiggins was alluding on Monday when he said that the longer Thomas stayed ahead of Froome, the bigger the dilemma Team Sky would face.

Froome, to be clear, is also riding very well as he showed yesterday.

After Movistar's Alejandro Vaverde ignited the stage by attacking from the GC group with 54km to go, at one stage moving into the virtual maillot jaune, Sky regained controlled of the race. They set the fierce pace up the final climb, reeling in the day's breakaway before Thomas rode off the front with 6km of the climb remaining.

Froome chose not to follow that acceleration, knowing others in the GC group would have to. He then used an attack by Martin to bridge back up towards Thomas, who by then was working with Sunweb's Tom Dumoulin, only for Thomas to go again, overhauling lone escapee Mikel Nieve (Mitchelton-Scott) just before the finish. .

The explosive nature of the finale blew the GC group to bits, with many big-name riders losing time. Romain Bardet (AG2R), Vincenzo Nibali (Bahrain-Merida) and Nairo Quintana (Movistar) all lost 59secs.

Valverde ended up losing over three minutes, Adam Yates (Mitchelton-Scott) over four.

"It's an amazing position for us," said Froome, giving a curt "no" when asked if he was worried by his team-mate Thomas.

Time will tell what. But after one of the biggest rides of his career, Thomas said he would try to savour the moment. "It doesn't get much better, does it?" he smiled when asked about the prospect of taking the yellow jersey up Alpe d'Huez.

While Thomas was celebrating, Mark Cavendish was on his way home after rolling home 1:05.33 behind, way outside the time limit. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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