Le de Tour france 2018

Geraint Thomas was the strong­est rider on the strong­est team in the 2018 Tour de France. Pro­cy­cling looks back at a vic­tory that, in ret­ro­spect, looked in­evitable

Procycling - - PROLOGUE -

Great Bri­tain’s sixth Tour de France vic­tory in seven years was at once the most straight­for­ward and most sur­pris­ing so far. Straight­for­ward be­cause the win­ner, Geraint Thomas, never looked threat­ened. Sur­pris­ing, be­cause it was the Welsh­man, and not de­fend­ing cham­pion Chris Froome, who wore the yel­low jersey into Paris on the fourth Sun­day of the race.

As with all re­cent Tours, the pat­tern of the race was set early, with Thomas tak­ing yel­low in the Alps. Race fol­low­ers waited for him to crack, for his nom­i­nal team leader Froome to take over, and for ei­ther Primo Roglic or Tom Du­moulin to drop him in the Pyre­nees. It never hap­pened, and there was a mo­ment - it came about two kilo­me­tres be­fore the Col du Soulor on stage 19 - when Geraint Thomas’s ri­vals stopped rac­ing him, and started rac­ing each other.

Through a pea-souper of Pyre­nean mist, at­tacks by Roglic and Du­moulin had shed Froome. But they hadn’t got rid of Thomas. If they could have pushed on, maybe one of them could have shed the Welsh­man, but with only a few kilo­me­tres of climb­ing left in the race, they re­alised they had run out of road. The re­sult­ing lull in mo­men­tum let Froome, along with a cou­ple of oth­ers, back on as the lead­ers rode on to the Col d’Au­bisque and the only mean­ing­ful GC rac­ing left in the Tour con­sisted of Roglic at­tack­ing on the des­cent to try and put him­self into con­tention for sec­ond place. The Tour had been won, and lost.

Geraint Thomas rode some­thing like a per­fect Tour de France. His team man­ager Ni­co­las Por­tal, squint­ing in the evening sun­shine on the Place de la Con­corde two days later, one child on each arm, de­scribed the Welsh­man as “le boss du Tour”. Run­ner-up Tom Du­moulin had, af­ter the stage 20 time trial, rue­fully ad­mit­ted that he could not have beaten Thomas, even if he’d not suf­fered a 50-sec­ond loss, plus 20-sec­ond penalty, af­ter a wheel change in the fi­nale of stage 6 at Mûrde-Bre­tagne. “If I had been closer to him he would have taken more time on me in the moun­tains be­cause he was def­i­nitely stronger,” he said.

Thomas was the best climber, win­ning back-to-back Alpine sum­mit fin­ishes. His team was the strong­est ever it­er­a­tion we’ve seen of Sky – the only time he was ever with­out team sup­port was for those few mo­ments on the Soulor/Au­bisque and for the fi­nal cou­ple of kilo­me­tres of the Col du Portet sum­mit fin­ish two days ear­lier. He never put a foot wrong, never made a tac­ti­cal er­ror and passed through every pinch point in the dan­ger­ous open­ing week with­out con­ced­ing time. Un­til the stage 20 time trial, when Por­tal urged him to play safe, he hadn’t con­ceded a sin­gle sec­ond to Du­moulin on any stage, while he’d gained time on the Dutch­man on seven dif­fer­ent days.

You could ar­gue that be­fore Thomas even went about win­ning the Tour, which in ret­ro­spect he did on the Alpine duo of stages 11 and 12, with his wins at La Rosière and Alpe d’Huez, his ri­vals had al­ready sys­tem­at­i­cally gone about los­ing it. Froome (not a di­rect ri­val, but still the most log­i­cal pre-race can­di­date for Sky lead­er­ship) crashed on stage 1 and lost the best part of a minute. Roglic, along with his Lot­toNL-Jumbo team, shipped 71 sec­onds in the team time trial. Du­moulin, along with a sim­i­larly luckless Ro­main Bardet, lost time at Mûr-de-Bre­tagne. (Bardet would end the first week tired and fraz­zled, af­ter spend­ing much of the last third of the cob­bled stage 9 to Roubaix chas­ing on with one team-mate or an­other, af­ter a trio of punc­tures.) Richie Porte crashed out on stage 9. Vin­cenzo Nibali crashed out, cat­a­stroph­i­cally un­luck­ily, on Alpe d’Huez. Dan Martin lost a minute af­ter crash­ing on stage 8. Quin­tana and Landa suf­fered from Mo­vis­tar los­ing the best part of a minute in the TTT, and

each crashed – Landa on the cob­bled stage, Quin­tana on the Pau stage in the fi­nal week.

In short, Thomas’s ri­vals were all hav­ing the kind of race that Thomas him­self usu­ally has. Some­body once nick­named him the ‘Welsh Crash Mag­net’ for his un­canny abil­ity to hit the tar­mac at cru­cial mo­ments in big races. There was the time he slid out on the Ci­pressa des­cent in Mi­lan-San Remo. Or the bro­ken pelvis he suf­fered on day one of the 2013 Tour. Or the shoul­der he popped when Wilco Kel­der­man hit a po­lice moto on stage 9 of the 2017 Giro (a race which was sup­posed to be Thomas’s com­ing-out party as a GC con­tender). Or the time he slid un­der a crash bar­rier while ly­ing sec­ond over­all with one day to go in the 2014 Paris-Nice. Or ParisRoubaix this year. The list goes on.

How­ever, Thomas floated through the 2018 Tour as if on a cush­ion of air. He avoided the crashes that have blighted his ca­reer and was at the front of the race at every im­por­tant mo­ment for three weeks. The ques­tion of what Geraint Thomas is ca­pa­ble of when he doesn’t have bad luck has fi­nally been an­swered.

The boos started in the Vendée, be­fore the race had even started, and fol­lowed Team Sky around France. Ini­tially, at the race pre­sen­ta­tion be­fore the grand dé­part, they seemed to be re­served for Froome, but when Thomas took the yel­low jersey in the Alps, the Welsh­man took the brunt. It wasn’t a lot of peo­ple, but the jeer­ing was al­ways au­di­ble, a per­ni­cious back­drop of white noise be­hind the cheer­ing, cheesy mu­sic and re­lent­less pub­lic ad­dress sys­tem of the Tour.

On Alpe d’Huez, a fan ran out and pushed at Froome, luck­ily with­out the mo­men­tum to ac­tu­ally do any dam­age. In Va­lence, a fan wan­dered around with a hand­writ­ten sign, read­ing “Skybu­ta­mol”. On the road to Mende, a fan threw the dreaded “uniden­ti­fied liq­uid” over Chris Froome (three years af­ter Froome had urine thrown at him on a stage to the same fin­ish).

Into this febrile at­mos­phere waded David Brails­ford dur­ing a press

con­fer­ence on the sec­ond rest day in

Car­cas­sonne.

“I don’t think spit­ting or throw­ing things has a place in pro sport. But it seems to be the thing that is done here,” he said. “We’ve raced in Italy. Chris Froome’s case was still open and the fans were fan­tas­tic. Span­ish: fan­tas­tic. It seems to be a French thing, like a French cul­tural thing re­ally. That’s it.”

In the main, Brails­ford’s words weren’t taken too se­ri­ously. Le Monde ran a par­tially tongue-in-cheek think piece ti­tled, ‘Is spit­ting on cy­clists part of French cul­ture?’ But if his in­ten­tion was to shame the more vo­cif­er­ous anti-Sky fans by the road­side into si­lence, it didn’t work. The next morn­ing at the stage start in Car­cas­sonne, the fans pa­tiently waited for the riders to emerge from the Team Sky bus. As soon as the doors opened, the boos re­sumed and they fol­lowed the riders all the way to the Basque Coun­try (though they seemed to have sub­sided, or at least been drowned out, by the day of the Paris stage).

Sky have never been par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with French fans, though this is a gen­er­al­i­sa­tion rather than a univer­sal truth. At the start, in 2010 and 2011, Sky were more an ob­ject of mock­ery than vit­riol – their plans and meth­ods went against the stereo­type of the aes­thetic French fan, who prefers glory and art to the prag­ma­tism and sci­ence of Sky. It was only in 2015, af­ter two Sky wins plus a dud year, that the bad feel­ing re­ally ramped up, with Richie Porte re­port­ing be­ing struck by a fan.

The re­cent taint of scandal around Sky has not helped. The Bradley Wig­gins TUE and jiffy bag saga and the drawnout process of Chris Froome per­suad­ing the au­thor­i­ties he had no case to an­swer for the high salbu­ta­mol read­ing he pro­vided in a dop­ing test at last year’s Vuelta, have made some fans scep­ti­cal.

Ei­ther way, Brails­ford and the team have not made any at­tempt to damp down any French ill-feel­ing, such that ex­ists. Quite the con­trary. When Bernard Hin­ault thought out loud be­fore the Tour that Froome shouldn’t be in the race, Sky is­sued a press re­lease by way of riposte, rather than ig­nor­ing a man who has made a rep­u­ta­tion and built an en­tire per­sona out of ex­press­ing strong opin­ions. Brails­ford then vol­un­tar­ily en­tered into a war of words with

UCI pres­i­dent David

I don’t think spit­ting or throw­ing things has a place in pro sport. It seems to be a French cul­tural thing, re­ally David Brails­ford

Lap­par­tient, ac­cus­ing him of hav­ing a “lo­cal French mayor kind of men­tal­ity”.

Brails­ford later back­tracked on his words in Car­cas­sonne about French fans, de­scrib­ing him­self as a Fran­cophile and in­sist­ing that his in­ten­tion had only been to highlight that it was at the Tour, and no other races, that fans spat at riders. He also told Pro­cy­cling dur­ing the fi­nal weekend of the Tour that he didn’t ob­ject to the pas­sion of the fans, just the spit­ting and phys­i­cal con­tact.

“Cheer­ing, boo­ing: that’s sport. You need to evoke that level of pas­sion, so I’ve got no is­sue with that. I wasn’t try­ing to in­sult an en­tire na­tion. I knew it wouldn’t make me look very good, but I knew it would get talked about,” he said.

He also rue­fully ad­mit­ted: “Maybe it wasn’t the wis­est, and I’ve not been sec­onded into the PR team, nor am I ex­pect­ing that any time soon.”

Yet the im­pres­sion re­mains that Brails­ford knows what he’s do­ing, and he did give some clues as to why he seemed to be so comfortable fo­ment­ing an at­mos­phere of ‘them against us’. “Each Sky car that drives up a moun­tain, they get some proper abuse, and it’s a scary ex­pe­ri­ence. When you get it for three weeks, it builds. But in the bus, we go into a fight mode,” he said. Jeremy Whit­tle, in the Guardian, com­pared the Sky siege men­tal­ity to the one that Alex Fer­gu­son en­cour­aged at Manch­ester United. It works, but it’s not pretty.

The 2018 Tour, as much as in any in his­tory, was a story of haves and have-nots. Sky were first and third over­all. Quick-Step won four stages, with Fer­nando Gaviria and Ju­lian Alaphilippe each tak­ing two; Bora-Hans­grohe and Lot­toNL-Jumbo won three. Eleven teams won stages in to­tal, leav­ing the crumbs to be shared be­tween the oth­ers. Ag2r didn’t get a stage win, and Ro­main Bardet was less sparkling in the moun­tains than in pre­vi­ous years (and took a bat­ter­ing in week one), but Pierre La­tour’s white jersey at least gave them some podium time. And it got worse from there. Fur­ther down, six teams vir­tu­ally came home with noth­ing, save a min­i­mum of tele­vi­sion time. Ka­tusha, re­duced to four men, came to the Tour with two lead­ers – Mar­cel Kit­tel couldn’t find his dom­i­nant form of 2017 and was elim­i­nated in the Alps while Il­nur Zakarin ar­guably un­der­per­formed to fin­ish ninth. Cofidis and Lotto-Soudal at least got a sec­ond place each in the stages. Di­men­sion Data didn’t achieve a top three. EF-Dra­pac were the least suc­cess­ful of all: not a sin­gle top-five stage fin­ish. For­tu­neoSam­sic didn’t even get a top-1o, though they got some podium time for wear­ing the King of the Moun­tains jersey and the stage 1 Com­bat­iv­ity award.

The re­duc­tion to eight riders didn’t make a jot of dif­fer­ence. The Sky train was in­vin­ci­ble in the moun­tains

Anx­ious pun­dits also fret­ted about the dom­i­nance Sky ex­hib­ited. The re­duc­tion to eight riders (and seven, when Gianni Moscon got thrown off the race for tak­ing a swing at For­tu­neo’s Elie Ges­bert for hav­ing the temer­ity to cover his team­mate War­ren Bar­guil’s at­tack on the stage to Car­cas­sonne) didn’t make a jot of dif­fer­ence. The Sky train was in­vin­ci­ble in the moun­tains – Wout Poels showed only flashes of form, but Jonathan Cas­tro­viejo and Micha¯ Kwiatkowski car­ried the team deep into the moun­tain stages and Egan Ber­nal, at the age of 21, ac­com­pa­nied Froome and Thomas to the point where there were only a few riders left. In the TTT, the usual sus­pects gained: Sky, BMC, Sun­web, Quick-Step and Mitchel­ton-Scott all fin­ished close to­gether. Mo­vis­tar and Lot­toNL-Jumbo were two teams whose over­all am­bi­tions took a se­ri­ous dent on this stage.

Sky have been ac­cused of a lot, and can con­sider them­selves lucky to have es­caped from a se­ries of scan­dals with­out more se­ri­ous re­pur­cus­sions. They dodged a bul­let with the Froome salbu­ta­mol saga, and the De­part­ment of Cul­ture, Me­dia and Sport re­port by the Bri­tish par­lia­ment was scathing about the team’s al­leged prac­tices. The boos that fol­lowed them around France were an au­ral man­i­fes­ta­tion of the sus­pi­cion that such dom­i­nance can’t pos­si­bly be le­git­i­mate.

But the pri­mary rea­son for their hav­ing won the Tour six times in seven years is that they out­spend the other teams con­sid­er­ably. When your five strong­est riders all make up the fi­nal dozen or so riders in the moun­tain stages, it’s an im­mense ad­van­tage (though Lot­toNLJumbo also per­formed ad­mirably here, with Roglic, Steven Krui­jswijk, both in the top 10, and Robert Gesink and Ant­wan Tol­hoek able to at least chal­lenge Sky’s moun­tain train).

De­spite the best ef­forts of the oth­ers, Sky have cracked the Tour in terms of the tac­tics. The best ex­am­ples of how dif­fi­cult they are to beat came in the two hard­est moun­tain stages, to Alpe d’Huez and Laruns. In the for­mer, Krui­jswijk built a six-minute lead by get­ting into and then at­tack­ing the early break; in the lat­ter, Mikel Landa took a three-minute lead that put him sec­ond over­all on the vir­tual clas­si­fi­ca­tion and looked as if it could even threaten Thomas’s over­all lead. But on the road to Alpe d’Huez, Sky pa­tiently set a sus­tain­able pace, and ef­fec­tively waited for Krui­jswijk to come back to them, as they knew he would.

On the Laruns stage, it was more com­pli­cated, but the tac­tic was the same. Ni­co­las Por­tal told Pro­cy­cling, “We were rid­ing, and the gap was not com­ing down, but it be­gan to bother Roglic and Krui­jswijk more than us. Du­moulin chose not to ride but other riders [Gesink] came and rode to bring the gap down.”

Rod Elling­worth, Sky’s per­for­mance man­ager, told Pro­cy­cling, “When we saw the way Landa was climb­ing on the Tour­malet, you start to get a bit ner­vous, but Nico [Por­tal] was cool. He told them, ‘Re­mem­ber the plan. Stick to­gether as a unit. You’re strong as a unit.’”

Brails­ford told Pro­cy­cling that from his point of view the story of the 2018 Tour was one of unity. In 2012, Bradley Wig­gins and Chris Froome were barely on speak­ing terms, as Froome strug­gled to cur­tail his am­bi­tion when he looked stronger than his team leader. Even in 2017, Mikel Landa vis­i­bly chafed at hav­ing to ride for Froome, though he

was more obe­di­ent in the end than Froome had been in 2012. But while pun­dits hoped for fric­tion be­tween Thomas and Froome this year, Froome was adamant that the road would de­cide, and when the road de­cided that Thomas was stronger, he ap­peared to put his full weight be­hind the Welsh­man. Are you re­ally will­ing to sac­ri­fice the chance for a fourth straight grand tour win and fifth yel­low jersey, he was asked in the Car­cas­sonne press con­fer­ence. “Yep,” was the sin­gle an­swer, fol­lowed by a long sip from a mug of cof­fee.

Sky could have been put un­der more pres­sure. Their ri­vals stayed quiet dur­ing two of the six high moun­tain stages (to Le Grand Bor­nand and Bag­nères-deLu­chon), and didn’t make much of the two dan­ger­ous-look­ing stages in the Mas­sif Cen­tral, to Mende and Car­cas­sonne. Krui­jswijk and Landa’s at­tacks came early in their re­spec­tive stages, and came the clos­est to iso­lat­ing Thomas and Froome, but Sky car­ried on with their own plan, with the con­fi­dence that if they rode to­gether and hard, their su­pe­rior strength would log­i­cally grind down the am­bi­tion of their ri­vals. It’s also no­table that over the three weeks, not a sin­gle Sky rider joined an at­tack. It’s not par­tic­u­larly at­trac­tive to watch, nor ex­cit­ing, but there’s no ar­gu­ing with its ef­fec­tive­ness if over­all vic­tory is the only thing that mat­ters. Af­ter the Tour, var­i­ous pun­dits sug­gested salary caps, shorter stages, more var­ied ter­rain, tweaked for­mats and var­i­ous other meth­ods of un­der­min­ing Sky’s dom­i­nance. But this is a bike race – when the strong­est rider is on the strong­est team on a route as bru­tal as 2018’s, it’s very hard to fight.

Fer­nando Gaviria, Dy­lan Groe­newe­gen and Peter Sa­gan were three of the very few other bright stars of the 2018 Tour. They were the dom­i­nant riders on the flat stages, tak­ing seven stages be­tween them. It was a good Tour for Clas­sics riders – Sa­gan got his three wins and such a huge vic­tory in the green jersey clas­si­fi­ca­tion that ASO must surely look at ways to change the for­mat to at least make a com­pe­ti­tion of it. Greg Van Aver­maet couldn’t win a stage, but he trans­lated BMC’s TTT win into a week in the yel­low jersey, and while the GC teams sat back on the Alpine stage to Le Grand Bor­nand, he in­fil­trated the at­tack and ex­tended his lead. And John De­genkolb was a pop­u­lar win­ner in Roubaix.

Hilly Clas­sics riders like Ju­lian Alaphilippe and Dan Martin also thrived. Alaphilippe won two stages, the polka dot jersey and the hearts of the na­tion, and Martin took a stage win at Mûrde-Bre­tagne, along with the Su­per Com­bat­iv­ity award. And while the GC teams eased back, As­tana took the only real break­away stage wins in Mende and Car­cas­sonne, with Omar Fraile and Mag­nus Cort.

In the end, no­body could ar­gue that the right man hadn’t won. “G didn’t make a sin­gle tac­ti­cal or tech­ni­cal er­ror. He never showed any weak­ness. It was easy for him, be­cause he had the legs, and for me this was the best team Sky have had on the Tour,” said Por­tal. “Of course, it was com­pli­cated and he had wor­ries, but my im­age of Geraint in this Tour is of him in the yel­low jersey, win­ning on Alpe d’Huez. He was in such con­trol.”

G didn’t make a sin­gle tac­ti­cal or tech­ni­cal er­ror. He never showed any weak­ness. It was easy for him, be­cause he had the legs Nico Por­tal

De­genkolb cel­e­brates a cathar­tic stage win in Roubaix

Roglic, only six years af­ter tak­ing up cy­cling, was a gen­uine GC threat

Froome’s form didn’t hold enough to win a sec­ond 2018 grand tour

The top four of the 2017 Tour were in­sep­a­ra­ble by the inal moun­tain stage of the race

Nibali was brought down by a fan on Alpe d’Huez. He re­mounted but it ended his race

A crash set Dan Martin back, but he won the over­all com­bat­iv­ity prize

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