At the top of the highest climb in this year’s Tour de France Chris Froome’s wobble made Geraint Thomas’s day. From the Pyrenees to Paris there should be no more rivalry at Team Sky, no more leadership puzzles for the concluding days in this race.
“Obviously I didn’t want him to have a bad day, like he did,” Thomas said after watching Froome struggle. “It just gave me confidence, that someone of his stature was struggling.”
The Welshman, appropriately enough after a stage that began with a grid start, is now in pole position to win this year’s Tour, while his erstwhile leader is scrabbling to hold on to a podium finish and a share of the champagne.
But as the Giro d’Italia in May showed, a faltering Froome may also be like a badger, at his most threatening when cornered. “Write Froome off at your peril,” cautioned Team Sky’s Dave Brailsford after the finish, reminding reporters of his leading rider’s wobble during the Giro at Gran Sasso d’Italia, when he was also written off.
Given his Lazarus-like ride to win this year’s Giro when he stunned the peloton with an 80-kilometre lone attack, perhaps Brailsford will be proved right, yet after winning the 2017 Tour and Vuelta and then the 2018 Giro, this may also have been a climb too far for the 33-year-old.
His track record ensures that Froome remains number one at Team Sky but it is Thomas who is inexorably heading towards victory. That in itself may make a Froome bid for victory in the Vuelta a España in August all the more likely. But the outcome at the summit of the Col du Portet may also herald a changing of the guard for Sky.
With Thomas increasing his overall lead, the Colombian Egan Bernal finally showing the climbing aptitude that made his selection inevitable and Froome faltering, Team Sky’s principal acknowledged that possibility. “I plan two, maybe three years ahead, looking for who might be the next Chris Froome.”
He added: “It was essential that Bernal came to Sky, for our future. The Tour can be an intense experience, sometimes positive, sometimes negative and for a young man with not that much experience of Europe it could have been tough, but he’s strong.”
While Bernal remains a work in progress, Froome is a proven champion. Yet when he arrived back at his team bus and responded to questions in French, he seemed dazed by the stage, a demeanour that was perhaps partly attributable to his collision with a policeman as he rode down from the finish.
Chris Froome swears at policeman who pulled him off bike after Tour de France stage 17 – video
Across the road, meanwhile, Thomas was holding court. “If Froomey was suffering, everyone was suffering,” he said.
After all the talk about the grid start to the stage on Wednesday, the F1‑style départ was a damp squib but the curtailed length of the stage, and the back‑to‑back nature of the three steep climbs, ensured the pace was hot from the very beginning.
The template for Froome’s defaillance, as the French would label his moment of weakness, was set on the second climb, the Col de Val Louron-Azet, when Romain Bardet’s AG2R set such a high pace that they exploded the group of favourites while also riding so hard that the team’s own leader was plunged into crisis.
After those accelerations Bardet was, to put it in common parlance, “swinging” and eventually cracked on the final climb to the Portet. But it was enough to trouble Froome too. Able to respond to Primoz Roglic’s first accelerations, he was finally distanced when Thomas and the Slovenian followed Tom Dumoulin’s lead, two kilometres from the finish.
Afterwards Froome remained unflappable. “I’m happy just to be in the position I’m in,” he said. “I’ve won the last three Grand Tours I’ve done now. I’ll still fight for the podium.”
And yet, the race is not over. The final mountain stage on Friday could prove to be a final hurrah for Froome, Bardet, Roglic, Nairo Quintana, or any combination of those names. In another long day of mammoth climbs, that takes in the beyond category ascents of the Col du Tourmalet and Col d’Aubisque, fatigue, stress and anxiety will peak.
Thomas finally acknowledged on Wednesday night that he was in “a good position” before adding: “But I am not going to change my approach. I’m going to take it day by day. As soon as you start getting carried away, that’s when it goes downhill.”
It is downhill all the way on Friday for the finish in Laruns, sited at the foot of the mighty climb of the Aubisque. Only then, once he has survived the Pyrenees with his lead intact, can Thomas start to count his chickens. Behind him, with less than a minute separating Froome, Dumoulin and Roglic, the battle for the podium positions will be intense. The Welshman has to make sure he does not get caught in the crossfire.
Wiggle High5 to fold
British-registered women’s cycling team Wiggle High5 will not return in 2019, owner Rochelle Gilmore has announced. The team, which launched in 2013 and employs 17 riders plus 14 full-time members of staff, had reportedly been struggling to find a title sponsor for next season.
“Thank you to all the athletes, staff, partners and especially the fans that got behind the team when we registered back in 2013 and all the way through those six years,” Gilmore said. “It’s been fantastic and we couldn’t have done it without each other.”
Closure of the team leaves British sisters Lucy and Grace Garner to find a new home, while Scotland’s Olympic track champion Katie Archibald also rides for the team when competing on the road. Two of the team’s biggest names, Elisa Longo Borghini and Audrey Cordon-Ragot, have been linked with a move to join Lizzie Deignan in the newly-formed Trek squad.