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
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
“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